Madelyn Dunham: Grandmother of Barack Obama

By 24 hours, she missed out on discovering whether her grandson made history as the first African-American president of the United States. But Madelyn Dunham was a bit of a pioneer herself. She was among the first female vice-presidents of a bank in Hawaii in an era when gender discrimination ruled. She was also unfailingly supportive of her daughter Ann, and Ann's son Barack Obama, at a time when racially mixed marriages were frowned upon by most Americans.

As a Presidential candidate, Obama always depicted his grandmother as a salt-of-the-earth Midwesterner who helped him keep his bearings during his formative and confused years in Hawaii, where, from the age of 10 to 18, he lived with his grandparents as he attended the exclusive and costly Punahou School. Madelyn Dunham's senior job at the Bank of Hawaii helped pay the fees.

"You did well," Obama would remember his grandmother telling him in a phone call after the sensational keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention that turned him overnight into a national political star. But in the next breath, in the down-to-earth way typical of where she came from, she added: "I just kind of worry about you. I hope you keep your head on straight."

Madelyn Payne was born in Kansas in 1922, into a strict Methodist family. She was just 17 when she met Stanley Dunham, a charming furniture salesman four years her senior, and married him that same year, 1940. Two years later their daughter Ann was born, by which time her husband was serving in the US Army and she was working on an assembly line for B-29 bombers in Wichita.

After the war, the family moved frequently – to Texas, California and Washington state – before settling in Honolulu. There Ann attended the University of Hawaii, where she met a graduate student from Kenya named Barack Obama. Their marriage in 1961 did not greatly delight her parents – especially when they received a letter from Obama Senior's father saying the family "didn't want the Obama blood sullied by a white woman".

For the future Presidential candidate however, his grandparents were an anchor. It was not always plain sailing: in his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father, Obama wrote how he reached an unspoken pact with them: "I could live with them and they'd leave me alone so long as I kept my trouble out of sight." (The "trouble" as Obama confesses in his book, included the use of marijuana, alcohol and cocaine.) But when it mattered, the woman whom he and his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, called "Toot" – an abbreviated version of tutu, a Hawaiian word for grandmother or older female relative – was always there for them. As Obama put it years later, "what Toot believed kept her going were the needs of her grandchildren and the stoicism of her ancestors. 'So long as you kids do well, Bar,' she used to say, 'that's all that really matters.' "

And her grandson did remarkably well, progressing from community organiser in Chicago to Harvard Law School where he was the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review; and then to the Illinois state legislature and the US Senate, where he won his party's White House nomination. His mother Ann died of cancer in 1995.

Frail of health and in her mid-80s, Madelyn Dunham featured only briefly in her grandson's campaign. In April 2008, she was shown in an Obama TV ad, saying he had "a lot of depth, and a broadness of view".

More controversially, her name had come up a few weeks earlier, in Obama's major speech defending his former relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. "I can no more disown him," the candidate said of the firebrand Chicago 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 remarks that made me cringe."

Opponents seized on the remark as proof of how Obama was ready to smear even his own family to further his cause. He himself insisted he was merely referring to "fears that are embedded in our culture and society, even within a family like mine that is diverse." From Hawaii, friends insisted she had never made a racist remark in her life.

Dunham herself, meanwhile, continued to live in the same unpretentious two-bedroom apartment in Honolulu where she had helped raise Obama. She refused all comment, preferring to watch CNN every day as she followed her grandson's pursuit of the most powerful job in the world.

Rupert Cornwell

Madelyn Lee Payne, US banking official: born Peru, Kansas 26 October 1922; married 1940 Stanley Dunham (deceased; one daughter, deceased); died Honolulu, Hawaii 3 November 2008.

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