Memories of Barack Obama: THE COLLEGE YEARS
Birthers claim that no one from Barack Obama's past has come forward saying they knew him. Who were his roommates? No one remembers him in class. No professors remember him. People knew him under different names. He went to college as a foreign student, Barry Soretoro. He never wrote anything. No one has pictures. He never really went to college.
Like everything else Birther, this meme is easily debunked.
Poems in the Spring 1981 issue of Occidental's former literary magazine Feast document the literary ambitions of alumnus and Presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Interviews with Occidental College faculty and former students:
OFFICIAL SOURCES: Occidental College
Barack Obama attended Occidental College from fall 1979 through spring 1981 and then transferred to Columbia University in New York. He is not a graduate of Occidental; however, the Occidental College Alumni Association bylaws state that anyone who completes at least eight courses of undergraduate work (or a year of graduate studies) is eligible for alumni status when their class graduates. From the Occidental College Web Site.
Barack Walk: Director of Communications Jim Tranquada, veteran of scores ofObama/Oxy media calls, leads you on a short tour of the Occidental campus President Barack Obama '83 knew. Find out where he lived freshman year, where he made his first political speech, whether he really played JV basketball, and how Oxy has become an international tourist attraction. Tourgoers will meet at the Registration canopy in the Quad. Added 6/16/2012
Her life and Obama's intersected at the Cooler, a campus snack shop.
The young woman from Rye, N.Y., loved her psychology courses but cared enough about photography to find mentors on the faculty who tutored her in independent study courses. With a blanket thrown over the couch she recalls as "a plaid horrible thing," the living room of the apartment she shared in a nondescript quadruplex near the campus in Eagle Rock became Jack's makeshift photo studio. Students from her circle of friends and acquaintances would pose for portraits that she would hand in as her weekly assignments.
That day a friend was telling her about a student named Barry she ought to photograph "because he's so cute." Moments later, the man himself walked in. He agreed to the shoot.
There was nothing out of the ordinary about the session, Jack says, although it impressed her that Obama had taken the initiative to bring the big, banded hat, a leather, bomber-style jacket with a fur collar and cigarettes as grist for her lens. "He obviously thought about how he wanted to have his picture taken." Obama shared at least one characteristic with the other students who sat for her portraits: "I think the thing that everybody was trying to portray the most was how cool they were."
“It's exciting to see someone I went to college with become President of the United States of America, especially someone who was so genuinely nice and sincere. I would be lying if I were to say I knew him well; but like so many of us in this country, he has had a profound impact on me. I feel honored to have known him and to have been the "keeper of the photos from such a long time ago".
"When he surfaced as this national figure, I can only remember him wearing O.P. shorts and flip-flops," said Simeon Heninger, who lived near Obama in the dorm.
"He wasn't talking about becoming the leader of the free world. "He was talking about, I felt, being a responsible citizen. A lot of us were like that at Oxy. You were kind of turned on to doing something with your life."
John Boyer, Dorm Neighbor
John Boyer, a skin cancer surgeon in Honolulu, fondly recalled evenings driving around L.A. and sharing pizza near campus. Boyer described himself as conservative politically and opposed to some of Obama's positions, but added, "What I admired about him then and now is that he is a very principled person in how he formulated his views."
“When he talked, it was an E. F. Hutton moment: people listened. He would point out the negatives of a policy and its consequences and illuminate the complexities of an issue the way others could not.” He added, “He has a great sense of humor and could defuse an argument.”
Boyer added, "Barry would kind of hang back, and there would be some less sophisticated people who would be yelling their point of view or argument. And Barry would kind of come in and just kind of part the waters. He would bring clarity that would address both sides of the argument and substantiate his point."
Ken Sulzer, Dorm neighbor
Dorm neighbor Ken Sulzer, now a lawyer in Century City, remembers Haines Hall's loud soundtrack of New Wave bands like the Flying Lizards. Hallway debates tackled the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and President Carter's subsequent revival of draft registration.
Obama "did not impose his personality but certainly was well-respected among his peers and always had that great voice, even when he was 17, 18," Sulzer said.
In [Professor] Boesche's European politics class, Sulzer said he was impressed at how few notes Obama took. "Where I had five pages, Barry had probably a paragraph of the pithiest, tightest prose you'd ever see.... It was very short, very sweet. Obviously somebody almost Clintonesque in being able to sum a whole lot of concepts and place them into a succinct written style."
“Obama and I were walking back to the dorm and — listen, I was a year older and I thought I was a pretty smart guy — so I say, ‘I got an A, Barry, what’d you get?’ And he kind of wouldn’t tell me and just tried to change the subject in his low-key cool way. So I grabbed his paper out of his hand — and he’d gotten an A-plus. That’s when it hit me just how bright he was.”
Parsons said Obama was troubled, for example, by the way black students clung together. "I remember talking about the vicious circle between self-segregation and segregation imposed upon you," Parsons said. "I could tell that bothered him."
Paul Carpenter, Freshman Roommate
Carpenter recalled Obama as "a good bodysurfer" who had "a funky red car, a Fiat," and who also played intramurals - flag football, tennis and water polo. "He was an athletic guy. He was gifted in that regard," said Carpenter. He also remembered Obama being "super bright. He could get through the course work in a fraction of the time it took me."
But Obama had friends from many different backgrounds. Other friends at Occidental, including his freshman roommate, Paul Carpenter, never heard Obama called Barack at all. At times, he was still asking to be called Barry.
“Barack was a bookworm,” says Hasan Chandoo ’81, a financial consultant in New York and Obama’s roommate during his sophomore year at Oxy. “He had to quit basketball to concentrate on his school work.” Chandoo notes that Obama first became politicized at Occidental, where the two became involved in the anti-apartheid movement and attended rallies for causes like Citizens in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). “He could have made a lot of money, become an investment banker. But it was clear that he was taken with politics. He was always reading a book like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and it took over his life.”
Vinai Thummalapally ... remembered him as a model of moderation — jogging in the morning, playing pickup basketball at the gym, hitting the books and socializing.
“If someone passed him a joint, he would take a drag. We’d smoke or have one extra beer, but he would not even do as much as other people on campus,” recounted Mr. Thummalapally, an Obama fund-raiser. “He was not even close to being a party animal.”
The couple often get asked what Obama was like in college. Easy. He was Barry, the mellow guy in the leather jacket, dragging on a cigarette.
"The leather jacket he wore for years. The leather jacket, that's exactly him," Barbara says. "He would be sitting there smoking quite a bit in those days."
Their close-knit circle of international students hardly rated as party animals. "There were about six of us. We'd go to Venice Beach to see all the crazy people. We'd have all these great political discussions about whatever the latest thing was."
Having a good time didn't interfere with Obama's academics. "It was so typical that he could just go and type out this amazing paper and do well after having partied all night, having drinks, beer or whatever we do at college," she says.
Obama sometimes drove her to class. "He'd sit there low in his seat, he played cool music."
I met him in 1979, when we were freshmen at Occidental College (Oxy) in Los Angeles and our dorm rooms were directly opposite each other.
I came to college as a middle-class guy from Bethesda, Md., where I’d lived from fifth grade through high school. At Oxy, we attended some of the same social events and had late-night philosophical discussions related to our college reading or to current affairs. We attended rallies on campus where we were urged to “draft beer, not people,” and discussed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, apartheid in South Africa, the hostages in Iran and the Contras in Latin America. The crowd we hung out with included men, women, blacks, whites, Hispanics and international students. Barack listened carefully to all points of view and he was funny, smart, thoughtful and well-liked. It was easy to sit down with him and have a fun conversation.
His preppy visage was a liability on the basketball court. Obama had played forward on Punahou's 1979 state championship team but that held little currency in Los Angeles, where his new friends committed hard fouls in pickup games and ribbed him with quips such as "Welcome to LA," Goss recalled.
"We were giving him a lot of grief about being from Hawaii and being from Punahou, and he was giving it back," Goss said.
Morton, assistant track coach and sports information director at Dickinson State in Dickinson, N.D., says he remembers Obama from pickup games and recalls the president-elect as an "even-tempered, pretty impressive guy."
And one more thing. "It wasn't stylish to wear those itty-bitty socks back then," Morton says, "but I can remember him not wearing socks when he played -- at least that you could see. The rest of us had socks halfway up our legs. "I suppose he could have had socks underneath his high tops, but you never saw them. And that certainly wasn't the style."
Wahid Hamid, a good friend at Oxy who attended Obama's wedding years later, says that even before he became Barack, most friends simply called him "Obama." "It wasn't surprising to me that he decided to embrace that identity because 'Barry' could be perceived as trying to run away from something and trying to fit in, rather than embracing his own identity and, in many ways, kind of opening himself to who he is." For Wahid, an immigrant from Pakistan also trying to find his way in America (he is now a corporate executive in New York), the name Barack was perfectly natural and "somewhat refreshing."
Margot Mifflin, Classmate
The young man Mifflin remembers was "an unpretentious, down to earth, solidly middle-class guy who seemed somewhat more sophisticated than the average college student. He was slightly reserved and deliberate in a way that I sometimes thought betrayed an uncertainty."
"He was clearly shocked by the economic disparity he saw in Pakistan. He couldn't get over the sight of rural peasants bowing to the wealthy landowners they worked for as they passed," says Margot Mifflin, who makes a brief appearance in Obama's memoir.
“I was a year ahead of him. I invited him and his roommate Hasan Chandoo, who I started dating, to dinner, and they showed up looking crisp and fresh-faced. I'd go to student parties round their house; I remember dancing to 'Once in a Lifetime' by Talking Heads in a sea of people.
Barry was a focused, dedicated student and an earnest, sincere person, but he wasn't too serious to talk about the fun stuff. We'd hang out and talk about what was happening in class and who was dating whom. He goofed around with the rest of us. He was engaging and perhaps even charismatic, but I wasn't aware of him being a playboy. He was friends with women who were impressive feminists as well as people who were more socially focused. He straddled groups: the arts/literary crowd, which tended to stick together, and the political activist crowd, likewise. He belonged to both.
I studied in a creative writing class with him. I remember him submitting a poem called 'Pop' (since published in the New Yorker). It was a penetrating portrait of his grandfather, in which his grandfather asked him what he was going to do with his life.
I was also at the rally where he gave his first speech, an anti-apartheid rally at Occidental. He was hunched over the mike, it was too low for him. He was nervous and he was rushing a little. I recall him saying something like: 'Occidental should spend less time investing in South Africa and more time on multicultural education.' That was impressive because you think of multiculturalism as a Nineties phenomenon, and here he was in the early Eighties, thinking about the need for that in an educational sense.
It didn't occur to anyone this guy could become President. He certainly didn't go around saying anything that audacious or ambitious. He was a nose-to-the-grindstone, quiet worker, not the kind who would run around tooting his own horn, even though he was probably getting messages from his professors that he had serious talent. I think he was figuring out who he would be and when he left Occidental he took the steps to become that person. It's like Shakespeare's line: 'Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.' He was the guy who achieved greatness and it clearly took a lot of hard work to do that.
Jon K. Mitchell, Classmate
Jon K. Mitchell, who later played bass for country-swing band Asleep at the Wheel... remembers that Obama wore puka shell necklaces all the time, though they were not in style, and that "we let it slide because he spent a lot of time growing up in Hawaii."
Rebecca Rivera, Classmate
He was one of a few students who spoke at a campus divestment rally. Rebecca Rivera, then a member of a similar Hispanic students’ group, said: “He clearly understood our social responsibility and the way the college’s money was impacting the lives of black people in South Africa and preventing the country from progressing.” She added, “There was passion, absolutely, but not incoherent fieriness.”
"The audience was rapt when he spoke. I remember telling him after, 'You are a really good speaker - obviously you have a lot to say. I wish you would get more involved,' " Rivera recalled. She said Obama's response was essentially, "When it's important, I do get involved." The implication, she said, was that a lot of what passed for campus activism he considered mere "Mickey Mouse stuff."
“Well, I remember Barry being the most inquisitive person in class. I think we had two classes together in the Political Science Department. And he always had a question for everything that was brought up and he always liked to stay after the bell asking more and more questions. That was simply his nature.”
Eric B. Moore, Classmate
"We were going to a concert or an art festival. We were culture and music hounds," says Eric B. Moore, who photographed then-college freshman Barack Obama, looking inarguably cool in an aloha shirt as he stared down the distance. "That might have been one of his better shirts. He was always in T-shirts, shorts and thongs. I don't think he had a pair of closed-toe shoes."
Even back then, Moore says, the president-elect had a presence but wasn't pompous: "He was down to earth and affable and very warm. A casual guy." The two liked to listen to lots of jazz and musicians like Earth, Wind & Fire and Bob Marley -- a typical day-to-day soundtrack for a thoughtful teen during that time. "It's surreal to know that he is now the leader of the free world," says Moore, a senior vice president at Transwestern who will be attending the inauguration. "I just know him to be that great guy from college."
Barry Obama met Eric Moore fresh on arrival from Hawaii at Occidental College in Los Angeles. The two roamed in the same circles, gravitating toward friends who considered themselves "progressive," including many with international backgrounds. Moore came from the mostly white college town of Boulder, Colo. He hoped Occidental and Los Angeles would expose him to African-American culture in a way that his Caucasian-dominated world back home could not. Yet Occidental had 1,675 kids enrolled, and only 17.7 percent were minorities.
"There was a certain kinship right away," Moore says. He remembers Obama as polished and precocious. He seemed older than his age, unless you considered the flip-flops, T shirt and Hawaiian shorts he wore around campus. "He was more worldly than the average kid in California," Moore says, "although he clearly looked like a surfer type."
"What kind of name is Barry Obama—for a brother?" Moore asked with a grin. "Actually, my name's Barack Obama," he replied. "That's a very strong name," Moore told him. Obama responded that he didn't want to have to explain his name. "Barry" was just a way of simplifying things—a small compromise to smooth the way in society.
Moore knew then that Obama had been called Barry for a very long time, but he made a point to call him Barack anyway. He did this because he liked the name, he says, but also because he respected anything African. "It was a time when we were very conscious and he actually appreciated that I called him Barack," Moore says. A handful of people, mostly close friends, would use Barack and Barry interchangeably.
While he would sometimes attend parties held by black students and Latinos, Amiekoleh Usafi, a classmate who also spoke at the rally, recalled seeing him at parties put together by the political and artistic set.
Ms. Usafi, whose name at Occidental was Kim Kimbrew, said the most she saw Mr. Obama indulging in were cigarettes and beer. “I would never say that he was a druggie, and there were plenty there,” she said. “He was too cool for all that.”
[A couple] who knew Barack Obama at Occidental College are New America Foundation President and New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll and his wife Susan. I asked Coll what the depth of his and his wife's relationship with Obama was -- and whether he'd seen the presidential aspirant get "wild."
Coll told me that he was two years ahead of Barack -- and his wife one year ahead -- and that they were all pretty good friends. They are friends now, but at a more pronounced distance and don't see each other much.
Coll recounted that he and Susan were impressed with Obama then and saw absolutely nothing on the drug front with him -- though he can't say the same about a lot of his other Oxy pals. He said that his one wild thing that got him a lot of accolades was his hard lobbying to get the trustees to divest Occidental College holdings from South Africa, which they did.
President Richard Gilman nominated him for a Truman Scholarship during his sophomore year.
Roger Boesche, Professor of Politics
Roger Boesche, a professor of politics who's cited as Obama's intellectual mentor at Occidental, said the young man from Honolulu was "a very thoughtful student and a very curious student." Obama enrolled in two of Boesche's courses: a survey of American government and political thought from the Revolution through the civil rights movement and an advanced look at modern European political thought, which tackled such philosophers as Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Weber.
"You didn't take my European Modern class without wanting to think about deep ideas," said Boesche. Teacher and student later lost touch until Obama, then an Illinois state senator, ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004 and Boesche launched a warm e-mail correspondence.
... [Professor] Boesche, has memories of him at a popular burger joint on campus. “He was always sitting there with students who were some of the most articulate and those concerned with issues like violence in Central America and having businesses divest from South Africa,” he said. “These were the kids most concerned with issues of social justice and who took classes and books seriously.”
Eric Newhall, a professor of American studies and American literature at Occidental, said Obama played with flair as a fiercely competitive guard in faculty-student pickup basketball games. “I remember him clearly as better as an offensive player than a defense player," he said. Now Newhall likes to lightheartedly brag that he "scored a good number of baskets against the senator of Illinois. I would love to say I scored against the president."
On a more serious note, Newhall said Obama already showed glimpses of social conscience and what his supporters describe as his charisma. "Clearly the guy had a presence," he said. "He came off as a serious, articulate, intelligent young guy," Newhall recalled. "I didn't say, 'Here is presidential timber,' but I said to myself, 'I like our student body because they are going out to do interesting things.' "
Anne Howells, Retired Professor of English
Anne Howells, a retired English professor, said she wrote Obama a recommendation for his Columbia transfer -- even though he sometimes turned in assignments late. "He wanted a bigger school and the experience of Manhattan," she said. "I thought it was a good move for him."
"He was so bright and wanted a wider urban experience."
"He was the kind of student that comes along and you say, 'Oh, I wish I had written that or thought of that,' " Howells said.
Anne Howells, who taught him Introduction to Literary Theory in the winter semester of 1980, had noticed Obama's full name on the enrollment list of about 15 students. She was curious about it, wondering if it was a Hawaiian name. But when she went around the room asking each student how he or she would like to be called, Obama answered "Barry."
As an 18-year-old undergraduate student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, Barack Obama was among a coterie of students who spoke regularly with Lawrence Goldyn.
Goldyn, an openly gay political science professor who served as a mentor and friend to many of the school’s minority students, said Obama joined him and other students in discussions about social and political issues at a time when Obama was beginning to develop an interest in politics and civil rights causes.
“He was one of those usual, straight young men who was secure enough in his sexuality that he was not fearful of being associated with me, whether that involved taking a class or just talking socially,” said Goldyn, who also served as faculty adviser for Occidental’s gay student group.
"I coached there, and he definitely played for me," says Zinn, a former Occidental athletic director and basketball coach. Obama, he says, was his starting small forward in the 1979-80 season.
"He was really athletic, ran good, jumped good," says Zinn, who left coaching about 20 years ago and is a partner in an Orange County sales agency. "He wasn't a great outside shooter. In basketball terminology, he was kind of a slasher. He was left-handed. He went left well, didn't go right that well.
"He had a nose for the ball, always came up with loose balls and rebounds inside. So if he got 10 points in a game, most of them were probably under the basket. He didn't hit jump shots from 15 feet or anything like that. He was a good defender, definitely a good athlete."
He estimates that Obama averaged about eight points, five or six rebounds and one or two assists a game. In 1980, Zinn was elevated to varsity coach and says he met with Obama "to tell him that I was interested in having him continue to play. I anticipated that he was going to contribute somewhere in the program throughout his career, if not as a starter than as a reserve."
But when Obama returned for his sophomore year, Zinn says, he told the coach he would no longer be playing basketball because he wanted to concentrate on academics. Before his junior year, Obama transferred to Columbia. But Zinn wasn't surprised he'd turned to loftier pursuits.
"You could tell he was a really intelligent guy, a pretty deep thinker," Zinn says. "Freshmen are goof-offs, in a lot of cases, but he was not like that.
A spokesman for the university, Brian Connolly, confirmed that Mr. Obama spent two years at Columbia College and graduated in 1983 with a major in political science. He did not receive honors, Mr. Connolly said, though specific information on his grades is sealed. A program from the 1983 graduation ceremony lists him as a graduate.
School spokesman Robert Hornsby told WND that federal law limits the release of information about a student, but he could confirm that "Barack Obama applied for and was granted admission to Columbia College as a transfer student in 1981. He enrolled for the fall term of that year as a political science major. With the conclusion of the spring semester of 1983, Obama completed the requirements for a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and graduated with his class."
Columbia University Directory
Columbia University Class of 1983 Graduation Program (added 6/19/2012)
"The image [to the left] --never before released--is from public records at Columbia University that prove that Obama did, in fact, graduate in 1983 from the Ivy League school. Contrary to some conspiracy theories, Obama was a student within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences--not the less selective, “nontraditional” Columbia University School of General Studies (which only merged with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1990)." From Breitbart.com
Some birthers have questioned why Obama is listed at the end. It's alphabetical by last name. It also shows that he didn't attend under the name "Barry Soetoro", another claim.
Barack Obama '83 became the first College alumnus to be elected President of the United States. On November 4, Obama defeated his Republican challenger, Sen. John McCain P'07, ending a marathon campaign that saw Obama rise from a first-term senator to the nation's first African-American president.
Obama, who was profiled in Columbia College Today in January 2005 when he burst upon the national political scene, transferred to Columbia from Occidental prior to his junior year.
The presidential race that captivated the country for months held a special resonance on campus, as Barack Obama, CC ’83, became not only the first black person to win the office, but also the first Columbia College alumnus to do so.
The election of Barack Obama ’83 last February as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review commanded wide attention in the press. However, he emphasized to a reporter, “It is important that stories like mine are not used to say that everything is OK for blacks. You have to remember that for every one of me, there are hundreds or thousands of black students with at least equal talent who don’t get a chance.” Mr. Obama spent four years after college heading a community development program on Chicago’s South Side before enrolling in Law School. Born in Hawaii -- his late father, Barack Obama Sr. was a Kenyan finance minister and his mother Ann Dunham, is an American anthropologist -- Mr. Obama was largely raised in Los Angeles and Indonesia. In interviews with the Harvard Law Record, law review members said it was Mr. Obama’s combination of “"outstanding legal scholarship and experience as a community organizer, in addition to his inclusive leadership style, that distinguished him from the field of candidates” for the editorship, to which he must devote about 60 hours a week.
Obama Wins U.S. Senate Primary
Barack Obama ’83, Illinois state senator for the 13th district on Chicago’s South Side, won the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate over six rivals on March 16. He will oppose Republican Jack Ryan in the general election in November for a Senate seat being vacated by Peter Fitzgerald, a Republican who is retiring after one term.
Obama received 55 percent of the vote in the Democratic Primary. His nearest opponent, state Comptroller Dan Hynes, drew 23 percent.
“I think it’s fair to say the conventional wisdom was we could not win,” Obama told his cheering supporters following the primary victory. “We didn’t have enough money. We didn’t have enough organization. There was no way that a skinny guy from the South Side with a funny name like Barack Obama could ever win a statewide race. Sixteen months later, we are here.”
Obama, 42, was a political science major at the College and went on to Harvard Law School, where he was the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. He is a civil rights attorney specializing in employment discrimination, fair housing and voting rights legislation and teaches civil rights law and other subjects at the University of Chicago.
If he wins in November, Obama would become the only African-American in the U.S. Senate and only the third black U.S. Senator since Reconstruction.
Barack Obama ’83 -- The New Face of the Democratic Party? (Cover Story)
Obama says he was still goofing off for the first two years of college, which he spent at Occidental in Los Angeles. He continued to play basketball, which friends say he is still quite good at, and was involved in other organized activities. He also spent “a lot of time having fun.”
He changed course junior year when he transferred to Columbia. “I realized I wanted to be in a more vibrant, urban environment,” he says. As a transfer student, he didn’t receive housing, so lived off campus in various makeshift arrangements, such as living in one bedroom of a three-bedroom apartment, and renting a sixth-floor walk-up with slanting floors on the East Side, “just north of gentrification,” as he describes it.
As he pursued a political science degree, specializing in international relations, Obama says he was somewhat involved with the Black Students Organization and participated in anti-apartheid activities. “Mostly, my years at Columbia were an intense period of study,” he says. “When I transferred, I decided to buckle down and get serious. I spent a lot of time in the library. I didn’t socialize that much. I was like a monk.”
Barack Obama, CC'83, First Columbia Graduate Elected President of the United States
Barack Obama (CC'83) becomes the first Columbia graduate elected president of the United States.
"We note with pride that Barack Obama will not only be the nation's first African American president, he will also be the first Columbia graduate to occupy the Oval Office," Columbia president Lee C. Bollinger said.
Obama attended Columbia College from 1981 to 1983, after transferring in his junior year from Occidental College.
"... according to information provided by the [National Student Clearinghouse] to a WND source, Obama attended from "09/1981" to "05/1983" and finished with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science."
Phil Boerner, Classmate and Roommate
I was Barack Obama ’83’s roommate at Columbia College in fall 1981.... We both transferred from Oxy to Columbia infall 1981. Barack had found an apartment on West 109th Street, between Amsterdam and Columbus [Video of apartment as it looks now], and suggested that I room with him. Our sublet was a third-story walk-up in a so-so neighborhood; the unit next door was burned out and vacant. The doorbell didn’t work; to be let in when I first arrived I had to yell up to Barack from the street. It was a railroad apartment: From the kitchen, you walked into Barack’s room, then my room, and lastly the living room. We didn’t have a television or computers. In that apartment we hosted a number of visitors, mostly friends from Oxy who stayed overnight when they were passing through town. Barack was very generous to these visitors. As a host and roommate, he sometimes did the shopping and cooked the chicken curry.
Barack has said that he spent a lot of time in the library while at Columbia and one reason
for this was that our apartment had irregular heat, and we didn’t enjoy hanging out there once the weather got cold. The radiators in our apartment were either stone cold, or, less often, blasted out such intense heat that we had to open the windows and let in freezing air just to cool things down. When the heat wasn’t on, we sometimes sat with sleeping bags or blankets wrapped around ourselves and read our school books. We also didn’t have regular hot water and sometimes used the Columbia gym for showers.
I remember often eating breakfast with Barack at Tom’s Restaurant on Broadway. Occasionally we went to The West End for beers. We enjoyed exploring museums such as the Guggenheim, the Met and the American Museum of Natural History, and browsing in bookstores such as the Strand and the Barnes & Noble opposite Columbia. We both liked taking long walks down Broadway on a Sunday afternoon, and listening to the silence of Central Park after a big snow. I also remember jogging the loop around Central Park with Barack.
One weekend I invited Barack to meet my grandparents, Elizabeth and William Lytton Payne ’46 GSAS, at their summer place in the Catskills, which we called “the farm.” I took Barack to meet some neighbors on the mountain; everyone seemed to like him pretty well, whether they were die-hard supporters of Ronald Reagan or extreme liberals. While at the farm, Barack joined the routines there, which typically included a few morning hours doing chores, such as clearing brush and sawing firewood.
After that first semester, we had to move. Barack tried to find an apartment for both of us, but was only able to find a studio for himself. I was able to house-sit in Brooklyn Heights. Barack and other friends came and visited me there a few times; we typically watched pro basketball or football on TV, or went out for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. He was amused by my beginning banjo playing (I’m much better today!). Hanging out, we could get pretty emotional about sports, food and injustice. I remember one time when we were out walking he took the time to ask a homeless guy how he was doing, so even then he was concerned about others.
Through different living arrangements in Astoria, Queens; Bay Ridge, Brooklyn; and all over Manhattan, we stayed in touch and remained friends for the rest of our college years. He got to know my girlfriend from Arkansas, who is now my wife. Since I last saw him in 1985, we have exchanged a few letters and photos. He left for Chicago, and I eventually settled in Sacramento.
Barack wasn’t thinking about becoming President when he was in college; he wanted to be a writer. Barack is a good man — some might even call him a saint for tolerating my beginning banjo playing. Based on my six years of knowing him in college and the years immediately after, I can vouch that Barack is a man of character, and I trust him to do the right things when he is President.
According to Phil Boerner, Obama’s roommate, friend and fellow transfer, Obama transferred from Occidental to CU because: “we [Boerner and Obama] felt like we were in a groove and we wanted life to be more difficult…Obama used to tell his friends that he wanted to go somewhere where the weather was cold and miserable so that he would be forced to spend his days indoors reading.”
Obama took a a course on modern fiction with the late fabled Edward Said. He was underwhelmed. [Author David] Remnick writes, “And yet Said’s theoretical approach left Obama cold. ‘My whole thing, and Barack had a similar view, was that we would rather read Shakespeare’s plays than the criticism,’ Boerner said. ‘Said was more interested in the literary theory, which didn’t appeal to Barack or me.’ Obama referred to Said as a ‘flake.’”
Obama lived at 142 West 109th and Amsterdam with Boerner. Their monthly rent was $360. Remnick writes that, “the apartment’s charms included spotty heat, irregular hot water, and a railroad-flat layout. They adjusted, using the showers at the Columbia gym and camping out for long hours in Butler library.” Um, POTUS…they’re just like us!
Mr. Obama, who ultimately made Chicago, and now Washington, his home, enjoyed his New York years, Mr. Boerner recalls. Museums. Jogging in the park. Breakfasts at Tom’s on Broadway, not yet the celebrated hangout of Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza.
“I miss New York and the people in it,” he would write Mr. Boerner a few years after they graduated. “The subways, the feel of Manhattan streets, the view downtown from the Brooklyn Bridge.”
The apartment they shared, however, took some getting used to, Mr. Boerner recalled: 3E at 142 West 109th Street, a five-story building between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. The apartment had no interior doors, just archways, and Mr. Boerner had to walk through Mr. Obama’s room to reach his own. Hot water was scarce, and the two young men often showered at the Columbia gym. “It had a bathtub but no shower, just one of those plastic shower things that works ineffectively,’’ said Mr. Boerner...
When they lived together, Mr. Boerner said he thought Mr. Obama wanted to be a writer, not a politician.
New York was on the rebound when Mr. Obama arrived in New York. Ronald Reagan was president. Edward I. Koch was mayor and the city’s fiscal crisis had just started to abate. Life for Columbia students could be hard, however. Mr. Boerner recalls Mr. Obama wrapping himself in a green sleeping bag (seen in this photo Mr. Boerner took) to keep warm when they studied at home. They listened to reggae. Bob Marley. Peter Tosh. Talked philosophy. Theories of justice and John Rawls. Mr. Boerner recalled Mr. Obama joking that he would rather be spending his time pondering Lou Rawls, the singer.
Some nights Mr. Obama would whip up some chicken curry, a dish he learned from a Pakistani friend. Other meals were at Tom’s. “We would just go there for the breakfast special, two eggs over easy and toast,’’ said Mr. Boerner. “It was like $1.99, and we lived on a lot of bagels. They were, like, a quarter then, but they expanded in your stomach.’’
Though the two men stayed in touch, the housing arrangement ended that winter. Mr. Boerner thinks the leaseholder took the apartment back. Mr. Obama recalled in his memoir giving up the place “for lack of heat.’’
His letters to Mr. Boerner reflected the wistfulness of all expatriate New Yorkers. “I am still amazed when I think of what we put up with there,” he wrote Mr. Boerner in October 1986. “Still, I think you’ll find you miss it once you’ve been gone awhile.”
Sohale Siddiqi, Classmate and Roommate
The way Sohale Siddiqi remembers it, he and his old roommate were walking his pug Charlie on Broadway when a large, scary bum approached them, stomping on the ground near the dog's head.
This was in the 1980s, a time when New York was a fearful place beset by drugs and crime, when the street smart knew that the best way to handle the city's derelicts was to avoid them entirely. But Siddiqi was angry and he confronted the bum, who approached him menacingly.
Until his skinny, Ivy League-educated friend — Barack Obama — intervened.
He "stepped right in between. ... He planted his face firmly in the face of the guy. 'Hey, hey, hey.' And the guy backpedaled and we kept walking," Siddiqi recalls.
There was a time before Obama wore tailored suits — when his wardrobe consisted of $5 military-surplus khakis and used leather jackets, and he walked the streets of Manhattan for lack of bus fare. It was a time well before the political arena beckoned, when his friends thought he might become a writer or a lawyer, but certainly not the first black man with a real chance to become president of the United States.
When Obama arrived in New York, he already knew Siddiqi — a friend of [Occidental Classmates] Chandoo's and Hamid's from Karachi who had visited Los Angeles. Looking back, Siddiqi acknowledges that he and Obama were an odd couple. Siddiqi would mock Obama's idealism — he just wanted to make a lot of money and buy things, while Obama wanted to help the poor.
"At that age, I thought he was a saint and a square, and he took himself too seriously," Siddiqi said. "I would ask him why he was so serious. He was genuinely concerned with the plight of the poor. He'd give me lectures, which I found very boring. He must have found me very irritating."
Siddiqi offered the most expansive account of Obama as a young man.
"We were both very lost. We were both alienated, although he might not put it that way. He arrived disheveled and without a place to stay," said Siddiqi, who at the time worked as a waiter and as a salesman at a boutique.
In about 1982, Siddiqi and Obama got an apartment at a sixth-floor walkup on East 94th Street. Siddiqi managed to get the apartment thanks to subterfuge.
"We didn't have a chance in hell of getting this apartment unless we fabricated the lease application," Siddiqi said.
Siddiqi fudged his credentials, saying he had a high-paying job at a catering company, but Obama "wanted no part of it. He put down the truth."
While Obama has acknowledged using marijuana and cocaine during high school in Hawai'i, he writes in the memoir that he stopped using soon after his arrival in New York. His roommate had no such scruples.
But Siddiqi says that during their time together here, Obama always refused his offers of drugs.
Siddiqi says Obama was a follower of comedian-activist Dick Gregory's vegetarian diet. "I think self-deprivation was his schtick, denying himself pleasure, good food and all of that."
Siddiqi said his female friends thought Obama was "a hunk."
"We were always competing," he said. "You know how it is. You go to a bar and you try hitting on the girls. He had a lot more success. I wouldn't out-compete him in picking up girls, that's for sure."
Finally, their relationship started to fray. "I was partying all the time. I was disrupting his studies," Siddiqi said. Obama moved out.
Sohale Siddiqi, his real name, confirmed Mr. Obama’s account that he turned serious in New York and “stopped getting high.” ... What can be said with some certainty is that Mr. Obama lived off campus while at Columbia in 1981-83 and made few friends.
Michael J. Wolf, who took the seminar with him and went on to become president of MTV Networks, said: “He was very smart. He had a broad sense of international politics and international relations. It was a class with a lot of debate. He was a very, very active participant. I think he was truly distinctive from the other people in that class. He stood out.”
A young man with a red backpack often lingered outside the International Affairs Building. He was a commuter student, so he typically arrived early, but the door to his Modern Political Movements class was always locked until the last minute. His classmate, Michael Ackerman, CC ’84, always forgot whether his name was Barry or Barack. He knew that “Barak” means “thunder” in Hebrew, but Ackerman didn’t think he looked Jewish. Ackerman said he found his fellow political science major “charming,” but the two remained only casual acquaintances.
Barack Obama, CC ’83, was “almost chameleon-like, spy-like, slipped in and out,” Ackerman recalled. “He tried to keep to himself.”
According to Ackerman, who is now a lawyer in California, Obama sometimes played pick-up games of basketball and went to a few meetings of the Black Students Organization, but “he didn’t really hang out much” and kept his nose in the books. “At that time, a lot of commuters at Columbia weren’t as involved as people who lived on campus,” Ackerman said.
... I met Barack Obama at Columbia University when we were both students there in Spring 1983... I was a student at Columbia University 1981-1985.
Not only did I meet and talk with Barack Obama at some length, he wrote an essay that was published in The Sundial magazine on campus in 1983. Over the byline “Barack Obama” is a discussion of the anti-war groups on campus, including Students Against Militarism, a group I was a member of. (I was also a member of Young Americans for Freedom.)...
So, in summary, I was a student at Columbia, I met Barack Obama, I knew he was a student, and he and I talked, among other things, about my involvement in Students Against Militarism, my discomfort with its connection to Maoists and Stalinists on campus, and my favourite hat with political buttons all over it.
Cathie M. Currie, Graduate Student
"I knew [Obama] while he was [at Columbia]. He was remarkable then, but not in the way that most people think of as "remarkable." He was not trying to be noticed — he was studious and thoughtful. I said of him: "Whatever Barack decides to do for a career, he will be the best at it." When he left our group he was often on his way to a library."
"We played soccer on the lawn in front of Butler — I was usually the only woman playing and he treated me as equally as the others: if I was open, he sent the ball into the space in front of me, if I wasn’t open — he never made the silly passes that some men did to try to act like they were being egalitarian. The "into the space" passing was consistent — he was a superior strategist — and many of us had been college or semi-pro players. We always wanted him on our team."
"After games we had discussions — and we found that the same thoughtfulness of play was evident in his thinking about policy and social issues. He was a serious guy, but always had a ready laugh or twinkle in his eye."
"I was doing my Ph.D. — I assumed he was a fellow grad student. When I saw him on television at the Democratic Convention I was only surprised that I knew him, but entirely not surprised at his achievement."
"The people who are making these claims, Fox et al, do not understand Columbia. I recently told a father of a current student that he should visit the campus on a warm Friday night to see the school environment that is uniquely CU — it is the same as when I studied there: hundreds of us sitting on the library steps doing school work on laptops."
Currie isn't surprised that he was not widely-remembered by fellow Columbia classmates. "My sense of it was that he was keeping a low profile," Currie said.
He seemed like someone who had made a decision to prioritize his studies, she said. "We'd ask him to go out with us for beers after soccer," she said. "He seemed like he wanted to, but then he'd step back and say, 'Sorry, I'm going to the library.'"
Jonathan Zimmerman '83, Classmate (Added 8/10/2012)
Would he attend his thirtieth next year? Obama’s classmate Jonathan Zimmerman, director of the History of Education Program at New York University, who remembers the president from a sociology class taught by Andrew Walder, hopes so. “I’ve never been to a reunion,” he said. “But if that guy says he’s going, I’m going!”
In the spring of 1983, I was Barack Obama's professor at Columbia University. Barack, or Barry as he was known then, was a senior in my class on "The Novel and Ideology." I understand from reliable sources that he liked the class and was intrigued by what I was teaching.
Michael L. Baron, Professor of Political Science
One person who did remember Mr. Obama was Michael L. Baron, who taught a senior seminar on international politics and American policy. Mr. Baron, now president of an electronics company in Florida, said he was Mr. Obama’s adviser on the senior thesis for that course. Mr. Baron, who later wrote Mr. Obama a recommendation for Harvard Law School, gave him an A in the course.
Columbia was a hotbed for discussion of foreign policy, Mr. Baron said. The faculty included Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser, and Zalmay Khalilzad, now the American ambassador to the United Nations. Half of the eight students in the seminar were outstanding, and Mr. Obama was among them, Mr. Baron said.
In 1983, as a senior at Columbia in New York, Barack Obama enrolled in an intense, eight-student honors seminar called American Foreign Policy. His former professor, Michael Baron, recalled in an interview with NBC News that Obama easily aced the year-long class. But Baron says he never had any inkling that the gangly senior would scale such heights.
“You wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, he’s going to be secretary of state or president someday’,” Baron said. Obama was whip smart and “clearly one of the top one or two students in the class,” he said, but Obama’s seven classmates also could hold their own. “No real dolts in the class,” Baron remembered.
Twenty-five years later, Baron is president of a digital-media company in Florida and has hung up his professorial tweeds for good. He had saved Obama’s senior paper for years, and even hunted for it again this month in some boxes. But he said his search was fruitless, and he now thinks he tossed it out eight years ago during a move.
Baron described the paper as a “thesis” or “senior thesis” in several interviews, and said that Obama spent a year working on it. Baron recalls that the topic was nuclear negotiations with the Soviet Union.
“My recollection is that the paper was an analysis of the evolution of the arms reduction negotiations between the Soviet Union and the United States,” Baron said in an e-mail. “At that time, a hot topic in foreign policy circles was finding a way in which each country could safely reduce the large arsenal of nuclear weapons pointed at the other … For U.S. policy makers in both political parties, the aim was not disarmament, but achieving deep reductions in the Soviet nuclear arsenal and keeping a substantial and permanent American advantage. As I remember it, the paper was about those negotiations, their tactics and chances for success. Barack got an A.”
Baron said that, even if he could find a copy of the paper, it would likely disappoint Obama’s critics. “The course was not a polemical course, it was a course in decision making and how decisions got made,” he said. “None of the papers in the class were controversial.”
So would it provide any political ammunition today? “I don’t think it would at all,” Baron said. “It wasn’t a position paper; it was an analysis of decision-making.”
Baron acknowledges that he’s a big Obama supporter. He wrote a letter of recommendation for his former student when Obama applied to Harvard Law School. And, Federal Election Commission records show, the former professor has donated $1,250 to Obama’s presidential campaign.
“People assume he’s a novice,” said Michael L. Baron, who taught Mr. Obama in a Columbia seminar on international politics and American policy around the time he wrote the Sundial article. “He’s been thinking about these issues for a long time. It’s not like one of his advisers said, ‘Why don’t you throw this out?’ ”
In a paper for Dr. Baron, Mr. Obama analyzed how a president might go about negotiating nuclear arms reductions with the Russians — exactly what he is seeking to do this week.