Obama’s Mama

 

By NADIA PFLAUM

Obama, in Kansas City after his visit to El Dorado

At a rally last week for Sen. Barack Obama in El Dorado, Kansas, a surprising number of people came out to see their Kansas son’s homecoming. A prairie blizzard wasn’t enough to deter the snow-caked folks who waited for an hour outside the Butler County Community College gymnasium.

To wild cheering, Obama called the crowd “family.” And there’s a good chance that many of the people who raised the gymnasium roof that day showed up at Kansas caucuses on Tuesday night, when Obama enjoyed a whopping 72 percent of the vote over Hillary Clinton. (Across the state line, in Missouri, Obama squeaked past Clinton by 1 percentage point.)

Kansans had been excited about Obama all week. The day after giving the Democratic Party’s response to President Bush’s State of the Union address, the state’s governor, Kathleen Sebelius, had endorsed Obama at that El Dorado rally.

In that gymnasium, Obama introduced two people who had known his grandparents well — but whom he’d just met that day.

“I’d like to thank Mr. and Mrs. Kerns, who are sitting in the front,” Obama said. “Mr. Kerns went to high school with my grandfather at El Dorado High. He is the official class historian of the class of 1935. Is that correct? So he brought this collection of photographs … from back in 1935, and he’s kind enough not to tell stories about my grandfather because my understanding is he got in quite a bit of trouble when he was in high school.”

 

The man in the crowd, Clarence Kerns, clapped both hands over his mouth, and Obama laughed.

“Mr. Kerns is discreet as well as gracious, and I’m very thankful. Thank you,” Obama said. “I’ve got another relative here, a Curry, where’d she go? There she is! I was trying to explain this properly — Ruth was my grandfather’s aunt, right?”

A tiny woman in a blue cardigan stood up and shouted, “My sister Ruth was your grandmother’s first cousin.”

“I knew I was gonna screw it up,” Obama said. “My grandmother’s first cousin. Wonderful to see you. Give Miss Curry a round of applause. I’ve been going through my family tree here, trying to figure it all out.”

On the phone several days later, 90-year-old Kerns told The Pitch that Obama was embellishing the story about his grandfather, Stanley Dunham. “As far as I know, he was never in trouble, just another school kid,” Kerns said. “Though I never did know a school kid that never made it to the principal’s office once.”

 

Barack and mom Ann Dunham in 1963  

Kerns, who speaks quickly and brightly, is delighted to have national media attention shining on his little hometown.

“All the stuff you’ve been reading, a lot of it started in our living room where I’ve been researching it. I’ve been the historian for the class for 75 years.”

He says Obama’s grandmother, who grew up in neighboring Augusta, Kansas, is still alive and residing in Hawaii. “I sent her a letter the day before yesterday. I told him [Obama], ‘I will write to your grandma, and I will tell her you’re behaving yourself most of the time.’ And he just laughed. She lives in Honolulu, and, heck, she may have moved, because she’s 89 years old.”

Obama has made it a point of pride to note that his mother, Ann Dunham, grew up in small-town Kansas (she died of ovarian cancer in 1995). But in our effort to learn more about her, we came across a fascinating family history compiled by reporters at the Chicago Tribune.

“Obama’s Mom: Not just a girl from Kansas” traces Dunham’s intellectual journey, starting with her introduction to “The Communist Manifesto” and continuing through her beer-drinking, politics-arguing nights with the grad-school set at the University of Hawaii.

Money quotes: “She was not a standard-issue girl of her times…. She wasn’t part of the matched-sweater-set crowd.”

“She touted herself as an atheist, and it was something she’d read about and could argue….”

Read more here.

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