RALEIGH, N.C. – If Michelle Obama is her husband’s “rock,” his grandmother is a big part of the ground beneath it.
Madelyn Payne Dunham gave young Barack Obama a place to call home while his mother traveled the world. When he needed money for school, she went without new clothes to help pay his tuition.
And when the Illinois Senator decided to seek the Democratic presidential nomination, Dunham provided the “Kansas heartland” pedigree he needed to appeal to conservative white voters — and a personal anecdote about racial prejudice that helped the man with the foreign name and Ivy League resume connect with the African-American experience.
The 85-year-old former bank executive is said to be “gravely ill” after falling and breaking her hip, and some reports suggest she might not live to see the results of the Nov. 4 election. Whatever happens, she’s already lived long enough to see her “Barry” achieve what she’d wanted for him, her brother says.
“I think she thinks she was important in raising a fine young man,” Charles Payne, 83, said in a brief telephone interview Tuesday from his Chicago home. “I doubt if it would occur to her that he would go this far this fast. But she’s enjoyed watching it.”
Although he made his mark thousands of miles from the Honolulu apartment where she helped raise him, Obama and others credit Dunham — whose birthday is Sunday — with instilling in him an appreciation for education and hard work, and with setting an example of thrift, practicality and tolerance.
“I think there’s nobody more important than her, except his mother, in shaping his character,” said David Mendell, who interviewed Dunham in 2004 for the Chicago Tribune and later wrote the book, “Obama: From Promise to Power.”
Mendell said Obama got “that dreamer quality” seen in his speeches from his late mother. But when he has to decide whom to trust in politics, “that’s his grandmother’s practicality coming out in him.”
“His grandmother was a real no-nonsense, no-frills woman who was far more skeptical of human nature than his mother,” Mendell said Tuesday. “And in politics, he has to rely on both of those characteristics.”
The oldest of four children to an oil company clerk and a teacher, Madelyn Payne grew up in a “company house” on the edge of Augusta, Kan. She was a good student and an avid reader, with a special fondness for a good murder mystery.
A couple of weeks before her high school graduation in 1940, without her parents’ knowledge or blessing, she married Stanley Dunham — making her a maverick long before Arizona Sen. John McCain turned the term into a campaign buzz word. While her husband was away in the Army during World War II, she was home raising their daughter, Stanley Ann, and supervising a B-29 bomber assembly line at the Boeing plant in Wichita.
After the war, she followed her husband around the country as he took a series of sales jobs and got a college degree on the GI Bill — an accomplishment she always dreamed of, but was never quite able to find the time for. Despite that, she worked her way up from a bank secretary to one of the first female bank vice presidents in Hawaii.
The couple were living in Honolulu when their daughter met Barack Obama Sr., a student from Kenya. Barack Jr. was born there in 1961 and remained with his grandparents after his father left to pursue his education. Aside from a four-year interlude during which he lived in Indonesia with his mother and stepfather, Obama spent his childhood in Honolulu — most of it in the two-bedroom, high-rise apartment where Dunham still lives.
Obama often speaks fondly of “Toot” — his version of the Hawaiian word “Tutu,” or grandparent. In his memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” he wrote of looking up from the basketball court to find her watching him practice from the 10th-floor window — and of how she took the secretarial job at Bank of Hawaii “to help defray the costs of my unexpected birth.”
But an incident that occurred when he was a teenager also reminded him just how deep the mistrust between whites and blacks goes in this country.
In the book, he recalled overhearing Toot ask her husband for a ride to work, because a particularly aggressive panhandler had accosted her for money at the bus stop the day before. When Stanley Dunham refused, his grandson couldn’t understand why.
“Before you came in, she told me the fella was black,” his grandfather explained, according to the memoir. “That’s the real reason why she’s bothered.”
Obama said the words were “like a fist in my stomach.”
“Never had they given me reason to doubt their love; I doubted if they ever would,” he wrote. “And yet I knew that men who might easily have been my brothers could still inspire their rawest fears.”
Obama revived the story in March, when comments by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright prompted Obama to publicly address race relations in America.
“I can no more disown him,” he told an audience in Philadelphia of his former pastor, “than I can my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”
Charles Payne said his sister’s reaction to being made a campaign issue was “no more than just sort of raised eyebrows.” Although she was too ill to travel for the campaign, she followed it closely on television — even undergoing a corneal transplant earlier this year so she could watch the coverage.
“She was almost totally blind,” Payne said. “She’s not physically able to” campaign, he said, “but it doesn’t mean her interest has flagged.”
Obama’s campaign announced that he had canceled events later this week to spend some time with his grandmother. Payne said his sister was hospitalized briefly but is back home in her Honolulu apartment, where Obama’s sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, cares for her.
When Payne spoke with his sister on the telephone Monday, they talked about family matters.
“We had a short and as upbeat as possible conversation,” said Payne, 83, a retired university library administrator. “She’s unhappy with the condition that she’s in, I can tell you that.”
The campaign didn’t come up, and Payne wasn’t sure whether his sister had cast her vote yet.
Some reports have Dunham close to death. Payne declined to speculate on how long his sister might have, and whether she had the strength to see her grandson through the election.
“I think, of course, it’s been terribly important to her,” he said. “And she would like nothing better than to see that.”