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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 11, 2007

Obama's declaration stirs thrills at Punahou

 •  Obama: War in Iraq, 'smallness' of politics must end

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Those excited to learn yesterday of Barack Obama's presidential candidacy included, from left, his one-time Punahou School teacher Eric Kusunoki, schoolmates Alan Lum and Dan Hale and teacher Pal Eldredge.

REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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"I am ready to take up the cause," Sen. Barack Obama shouted to a cheering throng in Springfield, Ill., at shortly after 6 a.m. Hawai'i time yesterday.

"Together we can finish the work that needs to be done and usher in a new birth of freedom on this Earth."

All over Honolulu, where the would-be leader of the free world was born, folks were waking up to the news that Obama's hat had officially been tossed into the presidential ring.

At Punahou School, where Obama graduated in 1979, excitement was in the air.

"Just the thought that somebody from Hawai'i, especially Punahou School, is even running for president is mind-boggling," said Pal Eldredge, 61, who taught math and science to Obama when he was a fifth-grader at the school.

"He was very active, very personable a bright presence in the classroom," added Eric Kusunoki, Obama's homeroom teacher throughout high school. "He's on a bigger stage now."

Alan Lum didn't hear the announcement. At the moment there were cheers in Springfield, Obama's former fellow "rat baller" was in the Punahou School gym helping coach the girls varsity team.

Lum didn't learn about it until after he'd left the basketball court. But the news didn't surprise him.

"We all knew he was going to do it," Lum said later from Punahou classroom F-4, where these days he teaches 6-year-olds. On the wall, eye-level to a second- grader, Lum had pinned the Oct. 23, 2006, Time magazine cover photo of Obama. The headline: "Why Barack Obama Could Be the Next President."

Lum conveniently uses Obama, his 1979 Punahou state basketball championship teammate, as a teaching tool.

"We read about him," said Lum, 45. "And February is Black History month, so we've been studying Martin Luther King, Jr. For me, it's great because it's real. I can say, 'I didn't know Martin Luther King, but I know Barack Obama, who has a chance to be the first African-American president of the United States.'

"I don't know how much the kids really understand, but they can grasp an aspect of that dream. They relate to it."

Lum, Obama and current Punahou basketball coach Dan Hale were all "gym rats" or "rat ballers" at Punahou "someone who practically eats, drinks and sleeps basketball," as Lum put it.

So, it was basketball between classes, after school or whenever the opportunity came up. They shot hoops in the park, behind the gym or any place that suited them. Lum, Obama and Hale were all on the championship basketball team of '79.

For half an hour, Lum and Hale politely answered reporters' questions about Obama next to the school lily pond before noon yesterday. He was witty, outgoing, always had that great smile, they said. He was ever the team player, but not the sort to back down if he was convinced he was right. Neither man could recall a negative thought about Obama never saw him do drugs, or as much as smoke a cigarette. They didn't recall him dating.

But after the cameras were gone and the rapid-fire questions had ended, Hale, who hasn't seen Obama in years, spoke passionately of his old friend.

"He always had that charisma," Hale said. "When you see him talk, and hear the message that was all there even back then.

"You really did see that ability to reach all sorts of people. I think that's what's made him so popular. Whether you're on the farms of Illinois, or in the streets of New York, or wherever it is. You can kind of feel that the message is reaching them.

"I would vote for him. Sure. Of course I would."

And "the message" that reaches and resonates so well with so many is one of unity and hope, according to Brian Schatz who was delighted to be retiring his seat as chairman of the Hawai'i Draft Obama Committee.

"Sen. Obama represents a change in the way politics can be conducted," said Schatz. "He's able to bring common-sense values to America. For too long, Washington insiders on both sides of the aisle have made the debate so toxic, so angry, that it's really difficult to get anything done."

Obama, by virtue of his background, skill and style, can bridge the divide and lead the way to positive change in America, said Schatz.

Virtually everyone who knew Obama back when said they would support him now. Each was certain they'd be meeting him again some day when he comes back for Christmas.

Maybe, said Lum, the day will even come when he and Obama will find the time to compete once more on the court.

"I could probably take him now," said Lum with a sly grin. "But, I would beat him with respect."

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.