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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 5, 2008

Punahou friends proud of 'Barry' making history

By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Supporters of Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, say he will help "put Hawai'i on the map."

ALEX BRANDON | Associated Press

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

This 1972 photo provided by Na Opio, the yearbook of Punahou School, shows Barack Obama, back row, third from left, in the 5th grade. Many who knew Obama in high school saw him as an achiever destined for success, but few imagined how far he would go.

Punahou School photo via Associated Press

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A day after U.S. Sen. Barack Obama earned the Democratic presidential nomination, Hawai'i friends, classmates and teachers reminisced about knowing "Barry back when" and swelled with pride at the thought of one of their own in the White House.

"I am just awestruck, but by the same token I am so incredibly proud," said Kelli Furushima, an Obama classmate at Punahou School.

The buzz was palpable at Punahou yesterday, as the handful of teachers and coaches who knew Obama when he was a student at the school in the 1970s were bombarded with questions by students and colleagues about what the politician was like as a teenager and whether they ever thought he would go so far. Meanwhile, longtime Obama supporters were abuzz about where the campaign would head now and whether the presidential hopeful would schedule a stop in the Islands.

"We're all excited, both because of what Sen. Obama represents for America, but also because he's representing our state," said Brian Schatz, the new state Democratic Party chairman and a longtime volunteer for the Obama campaign in the Islands. "Generally speaking, it's going to put Hawai'i on the map. It's going to make people more aware of our state."

Ever since the Illinois senator announced his run for the presidency in February 2007, thousands of Hawai'i residents have galvanized to back their native son. Obama has been a boon to the state Democratic Party, whose membership has more than doubled in the past year. And the fever pitch over his nomination reached immense proportions in February, when a record 37,000 Hawai'i voters turned out for the Democratic caucuses, which had in previous years never seen more than 5,000.

"We've had ... the most extraordinary response locally to a presidential campaign that this state has ever seen," said Chuck Freedman, a spokesman for the Obama campaign in the Islands. Freedman also helped found Draft Obama Hawai'i, part of a network of groups across the country formed to persuade Obama to run for the presidency.

Freedman said even those who don't support Obama can't deny that his clinching of the Democratic nomination is a historic moment.

"This is some kind of extraordinary gift for us all," he said, calling Obama a "gifted man who happens to be black and from Hawai'i."

EDUCATED ON HAWAI'I

But those Hawai'i ties could mean a lot for the state, Freedman added, pointing out that Obama needs no primer on the issues facing Native Hawaiians, along with environmental challenges and other problems in the Pacific.

Obama was born in Hawai'i and spent much of his childhood in the Islands, graduating from Punahou School in 1979. His maternal grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, still lives here, as does his sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, a history teacher at La Pietra Hawai'i School for Girls. Stanley Dunham, his paternal grandfather, is buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.

Yesterday, Madelyn Dunham declined comment, saying she was not speaking to the press. Soetoro-Ng could not be reached.

At Obama's alma mater yesterday, there was plenty of talk about the former high school basketball star known to his classmates as "Barry." Teachers and Obama classmates said that the news that someone who was born in Hawai'i and spent his formative years at Punahou could become the next president has people, well, giddy.

"Knowing somebody who was just like me is poised to make such great changes in the world, it just makes you feel like, 'Yes, we can,'" said Furushima, using her famous classmate's own campaign slogan.

"Personally, it has really inspired me to get off my rump," she added, laughing.

Many of Obama's classmates have become strong supporters of the presidential contender, though few have had much contact with him since he left Punahou. One of those strong supporters (and former classmates) is Bernice Bowers, who held a gathering for Obama supporters at her Lanikai home last year.

Bowers, an independent, said she believes Obama has the power to unite people and she sees in him the values that are so prevalent in the Islands diversity and working together for a better world. She likes to think he picked up those lessons while growing up in Hawai'i.

Growing up here, she said, he has "seen them (those values) and experienced them in action."

She said she hopes Obama will be able to export those lessons across the nation.

SUCCESS NO SURPRISE

Eric Kusonoki, Obama's homeroom teacher for four years at Punahou, said he didn't know Obama would go so far.

But, he said, he was pretty sure he would be successful.

Kusonoki added that when he saw Obama give his landmark speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which helped propel him onto the national scene and quickly made him a household name, he was amazed at how much he saw of "Barry" in Obama.

"He had the same walk, the same smile, the same presence," Kusonoki said. "That part hasn't changed."

Other classmates said they always knew Obama would make a name for himself.

"You could see he was destined for greatness," said John Kamana III, who was on the Punahou basketball team at the same time as Obama. "I guess I'm not too shocked" he has gotten so far, he added.

Kamana said Obama is an inspiration for anyone from humble beginnings with big dreams.

"I'm excited for him," he said. "It's an exciting time for Hawai'i."

Punahou President James K. Scott said in a statement that Obama is certainly someone Hawai'i kids can look up to.

"He embodied the hope we have for all of our students," he said. "He reflects the strength of our multicultural heritage."

And to some extent, contends Obama supporter and civil rights advocate Amy Agbayani, it is the presidential contender's diverse background that has helped him gain acceptance in a variety of communities across the country.

Obama's father was black and from Kenya, and his white mother was from Kansas. Growing up in the Islands, with a very small black population, Obama was something of an outsider who learned to mingle among diverse groups, Agbayani said.

"What he had to learn was to be an outsider everywhere," said Agbayani, director of the University of Hawai'i Student Equity, Excellence and Diversity office and a former state Civil Rights Commission board member.

"That provides him with a real ability to connect with every group, including blacks."

Reach Mary Vorsino at mvorsino@honoluluadvertiser.com.