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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 31, 2008

Obama in Hawaii: Trying to find his way at elite Punahou School

 •  Obama in Hawaii: Learning the reality of power
 •  Obama in Hawaii: Father was ambitious, proud
 •  Obama in Hawaii: For time being, Obama's Hawaii roots become a footnote
 •  Obama in Hawaii: Shaped by mother’s devotion

By David Maraniss
Washington Post

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

This 1979 photo shows Barack Obama during a basketball game. Obama came off the bench his senior year to help the Buff 'n Blu win a state title.

The Oahuan through Associated Press

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Barry Obama in the center of a photo in the 1979 Punahou yearbook.

Advertiser library photo

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Parts I, II and III of this in-depth profile of Barack Obama's youth focused on his parents and his early life. Today's Part IV looks at his Punahou years and the death of his mother.

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Keith and Tony Peterson were rummaging through the discount bin at a bookstore in Boulder, Colo., one afternoon and came across a copy of "Dreams From My Father" several years after it was first published.

"We've got to buy this," Keith said to his brother. "Look who wrote it." Barry Obama. Their friend from Punahou School.

They both bought copies and raced through the memoir, absorbed by the story and especially by the sections on their high school years. They did not recognize any of the names, since they were all pseudonyms, but they recognized the smells and sounds and sensibility of the chapters and the feelings Obama expressed as he came of age as a black teenager.

This was their story, too. They wondered why Obama focused so much on a friend he called Ray, who in fact was Keith Kukagawa. Kukagawa was black and Japanese, and the Petersons did not even think of him as black. Yet in the book, Obama used him as the voice of black anger and angst, the provocateur of hip, vulgar, get-real dialogues.

But what interested the Petersons more was Obama's interior dialogue with himself, his sense of dislocation at the private school, a feeling that no matter what he did, he was defined and confined by the expectations and definitions of white people. Keith Peterson had felt the same way, without being fully able to articulate his unease.

"Now, keep in mind I am reading this before (Obama) came on the national scene," he said later. "So I am reading this still person to person, not person to candidate, and it meant a lot more for that reason. It was a connection. It was amazing as I read this book, so many decades later, at last I was feeling a certain amount of closure, having felt so isolated for so long. I wasn't alone. I spent a good portion of my life thinking I had experienced something few others had. It was surprisingly satisfying to know I wasn't crazy. I was not the only one struggling with some of these issues."

But his brother Tony, who reached Punahou first, said he had regular discussions with Obama about many issues, including race. Tony was a senior when Obama was a freshman. The Petersons lived in Pearl City, having grown up in a military family that was first based at Schofield Barracks. While Obama walked only five blocks to school, Tony had to ride city buses for an hour and a half each morning to get there.

As he remembered it, he was one of a handful of black students at Punahou then, a group that included Obama, Lewis Anthony, Rik Smith and Angie Jones. Peterson, Smith and Obama would meet on the steps outside Cooke Hall for what, with tongue in cheek, they called the Ethnic Corner. Obama and Smith were biracial, one black and white, the other black and Indian. Both of Peterson's parents were black, but he felt uneasy because he was an academically inclined young man whom people thought "sounded white."

"Barry had no personal reference for his blackness. All three of us were dealing with it in different ways," Peterson recalled. "How do we explore these things? That is one thing we talked about. We talked about time. We talked about our classes. We talked about girls. We talked specifically about whether girls would date us because we were black. We talked about social issues. ... But our little chats were not agonizing. They were just sort of fun. We were helping each other find out who we were. We talked about what we were going to be. I was going to be a lawyer. Rick was going to be a lawyer. And Barry was going to be a basketball player."

Obama's interest in basketball had come a long way since his absent father showed up and gave him his first ball. Now it was his obsession. He was always dribbling, always playing, either on the outdoor courts at Punahou or down at the playground on King Street across from the Baskin-Robbins where he worked part time.

He was a flashy passer with good moves to the basket but an uneven and unorthodox jump shot, pulling the ball back behind his head so far that it almost disappeared behind him. Basketball dominated his time so much that his mother worried about him. In ninth grade, at least, he was the naive one, believing he could make a life in the game.

In Tony Peterson's senior yearbook, Obama wrote: "Tony, man, I sure am glad I got to know you before you left. All those Ethnic Corner trips to the snack bar and playing ball made the year a lot more enjoyable, even though the snack bar trips cost me a fortune. Anyway, great knowing you and I hope we keep in touch. Good luck in everything you do, and get that law degree. Some day when I am a pro basketballer, and I want to sue my team for more money, I'll call on you."

Barry's mother, who had a wry sense of humor, once joked to friends that she was a pale-skinned Kansan who married a Kenyan and an Indonesian so she could have brown children who would not have to worry about sunburn. Her understanding of race was far deeper than that joke; she was always sensitive to issues of identity and made a point of inculcating her children in the cultures of their fathers.

Still, there were some problems she could not resolve for them. Maya later said that her mother's overriding desire that her children not suffer perhaps got in the way.

"She didn't want us to suffer with respect to identity. She wanted us to think of it as a gift that we were multilayered and multidimensional and multiracial. This meant that she was perhaps unprepared when we did struggle with issues of identity. She was not really able to help us grapple with that in any nuanced way. Maybe it would make her feel like she hadn't succeeded in surrounding us with enough love. I remember Mom wanting it not to be an issue."


In an apparent effort to show a lifelong plot to power, some opponents last year pushed a story about Obama in which he predicted in kindergarten that one day he would be president. The conspiracy certainly seemed to go off the rails by the time he reached high school.

Unlike Bill Clinton, who was the most political animal at Hot Springs High in Arkansas — organizing the marching band as though it was his own political machine, giving speeches at the local Rotary, maneuvering his way into a Senate seat at the American Legion-sponsored Boys Nation — Obama stayed away from student leadership roles at Punahou and gave his friends no clues that a few decades later he would emerge as a national political figure.

"When I look back, one of the things that stood out was that he didn't stand out," said Keith Peterson, who was a year younger than Obama. "There was absolutely nothing that made me think this is the road he would take."

His friends remember him as being kind and protective, a prolific reader, keenly aware of the world around him, able to talk about foreign affairs in a way that none of the rest of them could, and yet they did not think of him as politically or academically ambitious. In a school of high achievers, he coasted as a B student. He dabbled a little in the arts, singing in the chorus for a few years and writing poetry for the literary magazine, Ka Wai Ola.

The group he ran with was white, black, brown and not identified with any of the traditional social sets at the school: the rich girls from the Outrigger Canoe Club, the football players, the math guys, the drama crew, the volleyball guys. Among Obama's friends, "there were some basketball players in there, but it was kind of eclectic," recalled Mike Ramos, also a hapa, his mother Anglo and his father Filipino. "Was there a leader? Did we defer to Barry? I don't think so. It was a very egalitarian kind of thing, also come as you are."

They bodysurfed at Sandy Beach, played basketball day and night, went camping in the hills above the school, sneaked into parties at UH and Schofield Barracks, and listened to Stevie Wonder, Fleetwood Mac, Miles Davis and Grover Washington at Greg and Mike Ramos' place across from the school or in Barry's room at his grandparents' apartment. ("You listen to Grover? I listen to Grover," Mike Ramos still remembers Barry saying as a means of introducing himself during a conversation at a party.)

And they smoked dope. Obama's drug use is right there in the memoir, with no attempt to make him look better than he was. He acknowledged smoking marijuana and using cocaine but said he stopped short of heroin. Some have suggested that he exaggerated his drug use in the book to hype the idea that he was on the brink of becoming a junkie; dysfunction and dissolution always sell in memoirs.

But his friends quickly dismissed that notion. "I wouldn't call it an exaggeration," Greg Ramos said.

Keith Peterson said: "Did I ever party with Barack? Yes, I did. Do I remember specifically? If I did, then I didn't party with him. Part of the nature of getting high is you don't remember it 30 minutes later. Punahou was a wealthy school with a lot of kids with disposable income. The drinking age in Hawai'i then was 18, so a lot of seniors could buy it legally, which means the parent dynamic was not big. And the other partying materials were prevalent, being in Hawai'i. There was a lot of partying that went on. And Barack has been very open about that. Coming from Hawai'i, that would have been so easy to expose. If he hadn't written about it, it would have been a disaster."

In the book and elsewhere, he has emphasized that he played a "black" brand of ball, freelancing his way on the court, looking to drive to the hoop rather than wait around for a pick and an open shot.

His signature move was a double-pump in the lane. This did not serve him well on the Punahou varsity team. His coach, Chris McLachlin, was a stickler for precisely where each player was supposed to be on the court and once at practice ordered his team to pass the ball at least five times before anyone took a shot.

This was not Obama's style, and he had several disagreements with the coach. He never won the arguments, and the team did well enough anyway. Adhering to McLachlin's deliberate offense, the Buff 'n Blu won the state championship, defeating Moanalua 60-28. Obama came off the bench to score two points. So much for the dream of becoming a rich NBA star.

His senior year, his mother was back home from Indonesia and concerned that her son had not sent in his college applications. In their tensest confrontation in the memoir, he eggs her on by saying it that was no big deal, that he might goof off and stay in Hawai'i and go to school part-time, because life was just one big crapshoot anyway.

Ann exploded. She had rebelled herself once, at his very age, reacting against her own parents — and perhaps against luck and fate — by ignoring their advice and getting pregnant and marrying a man she did not know the way she thought she did.

Now she was telling her son to shape up, that he could do anything he wanted if he put in the effort. "Remember what that's like? Effort? Damn it, Bar, you can't just sit around like some good-time Charlie, waiting for luck to see you through."


Sixteen years later, Barry was no more, replaced by Barack, who had not only left the island but had gone to two Ivy League schools, Columbia undergrad and Harvard Law, and written a book about his life. He was into his Chicago phase, reshaping himself for his political future, but now was drawn back to Hawai'i to say goodbye to his mother. Too late, as it turned out. She died on Nov. 7, 1995, before he could get there.

Ann had returned to Honolulu early that year, a few months before "Dreams From My Father" was published. She was weakened from a cancer that had been misdiagnosed in Indonesia as indigestion. American doctors first thought it was ovarian cancer, but an examination at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York determined that it was uterine cancer that had spread to her ovaries.

Stan had died a few years earlier, and Madelyn still lived in the apartment on Beretania. Ann took an apartment on the same floor, and underwent chemotherapy treatments while keeping up with her work as best she could.

"She took it in stride," said Alice Dewey, chair of UH's anthropology department, where Ann did her doctoral dissertation. She never complained. Never said, 'Why me?'"

Ann's career had reached full bloom. Her dissertation, published in 1992, was a masterwork of anthropological insight, delineating in 1,000 pages the intricate world of peasant metalworking industries in Indonesia, especially traditional blacksmithing, tracing the evolution of the crafts from Dutch colonialism through the regime of General Suharto, the Indonesian military strongman.

Her deepest work was done in Kajar, a blacksmithing village near Yogyakarta. In clear, precise language, she described the geography, sociology, architecture, agriculture, diet, class structure, politics, business and craftsmanship of the village, rendering an arcane subject in vivid, human terms.

It was a long time coming, the product of work that had begun in 1979, but Dewey said it was worth the wait: Each chapter as she turned it in was a polished jewel.

Her anthropology in Indonesia was only part of Ann's focus. She had also worked in Lahore, Pakistan; New Delhi; and New York, helping to develop microfinancing networks that provided credit to female artisans in rural communities around the world. This was something she had begun in Jakarta for the Ford Foundation in the early 1980s, when she helped refine Bank Rakyat, set up to provide loans to farmers and other rural entrepreneurs in textiles and metalwork, the fields she knew best.

David McCauley, who worked with her then, said she had earned a worldwide reputation in the development community. She had a global perspective from the ground up, he said, and she passed it along to her children, Barack and Maya.

Maya was in New York, about to start graduate school at New York University, when her mother got sick. Maya had seen Ann during that visit to Sloan-Kettering, and "she didn't look well. She was in a wheelchair ... but I guess I thought that was the treatment. I knew that someday she would die, but it never occurred to me that it would be in November. I think children are capable of stretching out the boundaries of denial."

School always came first with Ann, and she had urged Maya to stay at NYU until the December break.


By November, Ann's condition had worsened. She was put on morphine to ease the pain and moved from her apartment to the Straub Clinic. One night, she called Maya and said she was scared. "And my last words to her, where she was able to respond, were that I was coming. I arrived on the seventh. My grandmother was there and had been there for some time, so I sent her home and talked to Mom and touched her and hugged her, and she was not able to respond. I read her a story — a book of Creole folk tales that I had with me about renewal and rebirth — and I said it was OK with me if she decided to go ahead, that I couldn't really bear to see her like that. And she died. It was about 11 that night."

Barack came the next day. He had just finished a book about his missing father, but now it was more clear to him than ever that his mother had been the most significant force in shaping his life. Even when they were apart, she constantly wrote him letters, softly urging him to believe in himself and to see the best in everyone else.

A small memorial service was held in the Japanese Garden behind the East-West Center conference building. Photographs from her life were mounted on a board: Stanley Ann in Kansas and Seattle, Ann in Hawai'i and Indonesia.

Barack and Maya talked story about their uncommon mother. They recalled her spirit, her exuberance and her generosity, a worldliness that was somehow very fresh and naive, maybe deliberately naive, sweet and unadulterated.

About 20 people attended the service. When it was over, they formed a caravan and drove to the south shore, stopping at the Halona blowhole, just before Sandy Beach, Barry's favorite old haunt for bodysurfing.

They gathered at the lookout, past the rail and at the water's edge, a stone outcropping jutting over the ocean in the shape of a massive ironing board. This was where Ann wanted them to toss her ashes. She felt connected to Hawai'i, its geography, its sense of aloha, the fact that it made her two children possible — but the woman who also loved to travel wanted her ashes to float across the ocean. Barack and Maya stood together, scattering the remains. The others tossed flower petals into the water.

Suddenly, a massive wave broke over the ironing board and engulfed them all. A sign at the parking lot had warned visitors of the dangers of being washed to sea. "But we felt steady," Maya said. "And it was this very slippery place, and the wave came out of nowhere, and it was as though she was saying goodbye."

Barack Obama left Hawai'i soon after and returned to his Chicago life.