The dominant person in President Obama’s life — his mother

Published 12:19 am Sunday, March 1, 2009

Barack’s mother was given the name Stanley because her father, Stanley Dunham, had expected a boy and refused to give up on the name when she turned out to be a girl. She went by the name Stanley through grade school and high school and only began to introduce herself as Ann when she entered college.

Stanley Ann Dunham’s great-great grandfather, Jacob Dunham, had been a farmer in Tipton County, Indiana in the 1870s. He later owned restaurants and a confectionary in the Oklahoma Territory. Her father, at the age of nine, discovered his mother’s body after she had committed suicide. He and his brother Ralph were raised by their grandparents when their father went away.

Stanley Dunham grew up “gregarious, friendly, impetuous, challenging and loud.” In fact his social aggressiveness landed him in trouble when he punched his high school principal and was kicked out of school. As an adult, Stanley was a successful furniture salesman who “could charm the legs off a couch.”

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When Stanley Ann reached puberty she embraced a lifelong philosophy. When she was 13 years of age her parents made a critical decision. Instead of following the evangelical tradition of their Baptist/Methodist families in which adolescents are led to accept the Lord and obey his teachings, Stanley Ann’s family moved to Mercer Island, Washington so that Stanley Ann could attend Mercer Island High School which had just opened. There, liberal teachers Val Foubert and Jim Wichterman taught the importance of challenging society and questioning everything in society including the traditions of the church and family.

According to her classmates, Stanley Ann took the lessons to heart; A classmate remembers her as “intellectually way more mature than we were and a little bit ahead of her time, in an off-center way.She felt she didn’t need to date or marry or have children.. we were liberals before we knew what liberals were.” Another called her “the original feminist.”

Stanley and Madelyn Dunham, Stanley Ann’s parents, lived in four states before finally settling in Hawaii. After their only child graduated from high school she enrolled in the University of Hawaii. Now introducing herself as Ann, she got acquainted with Barack Obama, a black Kenyan student who had come to the University of Hawaii in order to study for a degree in economics. Ann, age 18, was very attracted to the 23-year-old student from Africa and was three months pregnant when she married him on February 2, 1961, despite parental opposition.

Obama Sr.’s first wife, Kezia, granted her consent for him to marry a second wife in keeping with their Kenyan tribal custom. (Stanley Ann would not find out until later that her new husband was already married and a father.) To her credit, Ann assumed the role of a traditional mother, carried her baby to full term and dropped out of college to take care of him. Her marriage to Barack Sr. was brief, ending in divorce in early 1964.

For the first six years of his life, Barack and his mother lived with her parents in Hawaii. During those tender years, when his basic personality was being formed, he had the thought-provoking influence of his very intelligent mother as well as the love and care of her extraordinary parents.

Obama Sr. completed his degree and graduated in June 1962 and entered Harvard University. When Stanley Ann filed for divorce in January 1964, Obama Sr. did not contest it and the divorce was granted. He earned a doctor’s degree from Harvard and returned to Kenya, where he was highly regarded as a government economist.

Barack’s mother later married an Indonesian oil manager named Lolo Soetoro and moved to Jakarta when Barack was six. Obama remembers that country as being very lush but very poor. In her second marriage Ann had a daughter, Maya Kassandra, who grew up to become a noted educator in Indonesia.

When a reporter asked Maya if her mother was an atheist she answered, “I wouldn’t have called her an atheist. She was an agnostic. She basically gave us all the good books — the Bible, the Hindu Upanishads and the Buddhist scripture, the Tao Te Ching — and wanted us to recognize that everyone has something beautiful to contribute.. Mom didn’t really emphasize the Koran, but we read little parts of it. We did listen to morning prayers in Indonesia.”

After her second marriage also ended in divorce, Ann moved Back to Hawaii and lived with her parents while attending graduate school. There she remained until 1977, when she returned to Indonesia to do fieldwork. Young Barack decided not to go with his mother but remained with his grandparents in Hawaii where the family lived in a small apartment. His grandfather was a furniture salesman and his grandmother worked in a bank. Nevertheless Barack enrolled in the prestigious Punahou School, Hawaii’s top prep academy. His father wrote to him regularly but, although he traveled around the world on official business for Kenya, he managed to visit his son only once, back when Barack was ten years of age.

Dr. Stanley Ann did outstanding research and consulting work as an anthropologist in several locations around the world. Eager to help rural people in cottage industries make ends meet, she developed micro-finance projects in Indonesia. In 1994, when Ann was diagnosed with ovarian and uterine cancer, she moved back to Hawaii to live near her widowed mother. After she died there at the age of 52, Barack and his sister, Maya, spread their mother’s ashes in the Pacific Ocean.

According to the word of President Obama, his mother remains the greatest influence in his life; “The values she taught me continue to be my touchstone when it comes to how I go about the world of politics.”