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Madelyn Dunham, Cornerstone of Barack Obama's Life

  • Heidi Chang

Throughout his campaign, President-elect Barack Obama often spoke about how his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, poured everything she had into helping raise him so he could have a better life. During the final stretch of the presidential race, the candidate suspended his campaign briefly for a trip to Hawaii and a last visit with his grandmother, who was fighting cancer. Dunham died this week, on the eve of the election, and did not live to see Obama win the presidency. That her grandson should reach such heights should be no surprise, because, as Heidi Chang reports from Honolulu, Dunham broke barriers before he did.

On the night Barack Obama made history, becoming the first African-American elected president of the United States, he acknowledged how much his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, had touched his life.

"And while she's no longer with us, I know my grandmother is watching, along with the family that made me who I am," he said.

He told the crowd in Chicago, "I miss them tonight. I know that my debt to them is beyond measure."

Obama has called his grandmother one of the "cornerstones" of his life.

Dunham was the focal point of the family, according to Hawaii Congressman Neil Abercrombie, a family friend.

"She was the disciplinarian. She was the one who set the goals. She was the one he was expected to answer up to, and he had to answer for himself to her," Abercrombie says.

Another family friend, Alice Dewey, recalls that although Dunham never graduated from college, she became a trailblazer in her own way.

"Madelyn Dunham was a Kansas girl who came to Hawaii, who started at a job in a bank at the lowest rung and rose to be one of the first woman vice presidents in a bank in Hawaii," Dewey says.

"She raised her grandson to be like her, to know that with hard work and intelligence and dedication, you could grow up to be whatever you wanted to be."

Setting High Standards at Home, Work

Dunham's attitude inspired more than just her grandson. She paved the way for other women, like Pat Loui, who later became a vice president at the same bank.

"Madelyn Dunham was well known in Hawaii for being an innovator in the real estate and banking industries, as well as for having a strong sense of purpose," Loui explains. "She always knew what she wanted to accomplish, and she did it extremely well."

Loui regards Dunham as a pioneer who developed Hawaii's escrow industry during the 1960s to early '80s, the boom years in Hawaii real estate.

When she heard Obama speak in Hawaii, Loui says she recognized some of those same characteristics of his grandmother in him, "his desire to bring change in America and also a sense of a mission of what he hoped to accomplish for the American people."

At Bank of Hawaii, Dunham headed the escrow division, responsible for verifying property ownership and closing real estate loans. Many of those she worked with - like attorney Pat Devlin - fondly remember how Dunham mentored them, something that was quite unusual at the time.

"A lot of the other few women that were in positions of power at that time were very competitive with other women coming into the professions," Devlin recalls. "But Madelyn Dunham was not. She was a mentor. She didn't limit it just to women, but she taught everyone who was young and coming into the business world."

Strict But Fair Mentor

Tom Van Winkle remembers Dunham as wonderful, but very tough. She mentored him when he was a young attorney.

"She made you toe the line. You had to be very careful not to dance around her, as opposed to being just straightforward and honest, and tell her what you thought," Van Winkle says. "Or, if you didn't know the answer, to say you didn't know the answer, but you'd find out.

"On the other hand, she was fair. She was open… nice and outgoing. She was always trying to help. She was trying to help people, and that's not always usual in the business community."

One of those she helped was Dennis Ching, who was her assistant at the bank for 23 years. Ching says Dunham was like a mother to him, but admits he was very nervous when he went in for the job interview.

"Mrs. Dunham scared the heck out of me the first time I met her… I had heard from a lot of other people she was the strictest manager at the Bank of Hawaii," he says. "She just made me quake in listening to her and the requirements of the job, but once you got to know her, and prove that you could do the job, she was a nurturing person."

Ching now heads his own escrow company, and says, "and I give her all the credit in the world for developing me as the president of my company."

While it is her role in developing the next president of the United States that is being noted, many will always remember how much Madelyn Dunham influenced their lives, as well.