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The Honolulu Advertiser
Updated at 5:25 p.m., Monday, October 20, 2008

Obama's tutu a female pioneer in Hawaii banking

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

This undated photo released by Obama for America shows a Barack Obama with his grandparents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham on a park bench in New York City, when Obama was a student at Columbia University.

AP Photo/Obama for America

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The white grandmother of Barack Obama blazed a trail for women in Honolulu's banking circles in the 1960s and 1970s as her grandson grew up surrounded by racial insensitivity.

While Obama's views on race relations in America were being shaped, his maternal grandmother Madelyn Dunham, now 85 received a series of promotions at Hawai'i's top bank. And in December 1970, she was named one of the first two female vice presidents at the Bank of Hawaii.

Sam Slom was a Bank of Hawaii economist at the time and was married to a Korean-Chinese woman. Slom remembers looking at housing ads that openly expressed racial preferences.

The landlords' ads read, "'No haoles,' or 'AJAs (Americans of Japanese ancestry) Only,' or 'No Japanese,'" Slom said.

"That's the way it was," said Slom, who is now a Republican state senator representing Kahala and Hawai'i Kai. "Did people talk about race? We had local jokes ... like that 'pake' (Chinese) guy or the 'yobo' (Korean) who did this or that. I certainly got my share of haole jokes. But I never heard Madelyn say anything disparaging about people of African ancestry or Asian ancestry or anybody's ancestry."

Dunham's views on race were highlighted in a March 18 speech that the Democratic presidential contender gave in Philadelphia designed to both denounce and defend his former, controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

In his speech, Obama linked Wright and Dunham when he said, "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him 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 her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."

Obama made a similar reference to Dunham in his memoir, "Dreams from My Father," in which he recalled an argument between Dunham and her husband, Obama's grandfather, Stanley Dunham, when Obama was in high school at Punahou.

Dunham rode a bus to get to her bank job, and one day had been approached by a man who pressured her for money.

"I gave him a dollar and he kept asking," Obama quoted his grandmother in the book. "If the bus hadn't come, I think he might have hit me over the head."

Obama referred to his grandmother as "Toot" short for "tutu," the local word for grandparent. He wrote that he offered to drive her to the bank, telling his grandfather, "It's really no big deal."

"It's a big deal to me," Stanley told his grandson. "She's been bothered by men before. You know why she's so scared this time? ... (S)he told me the fella was black."

Obama then wrote, "The words were like a fist in my stomach, and I wobbled to regain my composure. In my steadiest voice, I told him that such an attitude bothered me, too, but assured him that Toot's fears would pass and that we should give her a ride in the meantime."


Obama, the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, attended Punahou while Dunham helped raise him from the age of 10 on Beretania Street until he graduated high school.

Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, declined last week to comment on Obama's speech about Wright or his reference to their grandmother or their grandmother's attitude about race.

Dunham has repeatedly declined to comment to reporters. Dunham did want to be interviewed for this story, Soetoro-Ng said, but declined because it would be unfair to other media who have made requests.

Soetoro-Ng teaches at La Pietra-Hawai'i School for Girls. She visits her grandmother at least once a day and brings her 3-year-old daughter to Dunham's Beretania Street apartment as often as possible, she said.

Most of Dunham's close friends who knew her best are now dead, Soetoro-Ng said.

But several current and former Bank of Hawaii executives some of whom were mentored by Dunham and knew her after she retired said they were stunned by Obama's comments about his grandmother.

"I was real surprised that he indicated that," said Dennis Ching, who was a 23-year-old management trainee under Dunham beginning in 1966. "I never heard her say anything like that. I never heard her say anything negative about anything. And she never swore."

Bank of Hawaii or Bankoh as it's known locally was the No. 1 bank in the Islands in the late 1960s and early 1970s in terms of assets.

So Dunham's rapid ascent as one of the two highest-ranked female executives in 1970 was especially notable.

"It was a very big deal oh my gosh," Ching said.

Ching succeeded Dunham as head of the bank's escrow department when she retired in 1986. He is now president of Honolulu-based Integrity Escrow and Title.

While then-No. 2 First Hawaiian Bank was considered the "local" bank for ethnic minorities at the time, Ching and others said, Bankoh was "the haole bank."

It was a no-nonsense, serious workplace. And Dunham had a reputation as a tough boss who quickly tested young management trainees.

"The first day I met her, I was totally scared," Ching said. "She was the grande dame of escrow who started the local escrow association. I was just a trainee who didn't know anything about escrow whatsoever. But she gave me a file and said, 'You're a college grad. Here, close this.' You don't know how to swim and she throws you in, and you either sink or swim."


Alton Kuioka started at Bank of Hawaii in 1969 as a 26-year-old management trainee in the residential loan department, which frequently interacted with the escrow side of the bank.

Kuioka had just spent four years in the Army, served in Vietnam and mustered out as a staff sergeant. In the staid world of Honolulu banking, Kuioka admitted feeling pressure from Dunham's booming voice and tough management style.

"I was afraid of her," said Kuioka, who is now the bank's vice chairman. "She definitely intimidated me. If you were new and still learning, she was like a drill sergeant."

But Dunham also appreciated competence and would reveal a softer, nurturing side, both Kuioka and Ching said.

"Madelyn was the type of person who was very, very strict and took care of business," Kuioka said. "When you got to know her, you really felt the warmth she has. As long as I was willing to learn, she was willing to teach."

Ching felt pressure, being a "young Oriental in a white bank," he said. "I was so afraid to leave work before her. Chinese boys back in the day especially college grads from the University of Hawai'i were supposed to stay later than their managers."

In a roundabout way, Dunham revealed some of her own pressures, Ching said.

She spoke about the hard work of being a female aircraft worker during World War II which was sandwiched between her education at the University of Washington and the University of California-Berkeley.

Dunham never received a college degree, and she often let Ching know it.

"She told me how during the war life was hard," Ching said. "She kept on telling me that she never graduated from college, and I had graduated college. Yet she was a vice president and I was a trainee. ... She was a very strict manager. But she had a very soft heart. Her exterior didn't tell how soft her heart was."

Madelyn Payne was born in Peru, Kan., on Oct. 26, 1922. When she was 3, her family moved to Augusta, Kan., where she was raised, Soetoro-Ng said.

Madelyn married Stanley Armour Dunham on May 4, 1940, attended college at the University of Washington and became an aircraft inspector for Boeing during World War II.

After the war, she attended UC-Berkeley, worked various jobs on the Mainland, then came to the Islands, where she joined the Bank of Hawaii in 1960.

She started in the bank's escrow department, became its manager in 1962 and eventually was named the bank's first woman vice president in 1970, along with the then-Dorothy K. Yamamoto.

"Was she ambitious? She had to be to become a vice president," said Clifford Y.J. Kong, 82, who was a senior credit officer at the bank at the time. "She was a top-notch executive to get appointed. It was a tough world."

For much of the post-World War II time in Hawai'i, people openly spoke and joked about race just as they had on the sugar and pineapple plantations where each new wave of immigrant workers instantly became the latest butt of jokes, Slom said.

At the time Obama was growing up, Slom said, more overt racism thrived in the Islands at places like the Pacific Club, "which had a ban on Orientals."

Current and former Bank of Hawaii employees remember young Obama and Soetoro-Ng sitting inside the bank after school, doing their homework while they waited for Dunham to get off work.

"He and Maya would come in after school," Ching said. "I wasn't married or had any kids, so nothing impressed me. But they impressed me."

While Dunham could be stern and tough at work, her personality changed around her husband, Stanley, Ching said.

"He seemed like a real rough-and-tumble guy to me," he said. "When she was with Stanley, she was very quiet. He was the man of the house."


When she retired in 1986, Dunham's farewell party was a sober, staid affair, Ching said.

"It was a nice, big party and all of the senior executives came," he said. "Our parties would never, ever include jokes. We were unbelievably serious in those days."

In retirement, Dunham devoted herself to community service, Soetoro-Ng said. Stanley Dunham died in 1992 at the age of 73.

Madelyn Dunham worked for various nonprofit groups and public libraries and volunteered at Circuit Court, such as serving as court mediator, Soetoro-Ng said.

Dunham used to love playing bridge six days a week at friends' homes and at the Ala Wai Community Center near Waikiki, but has had to slow down in recent years, Soetoro-Ng said.

"Toot's routine mostly involves staying in her apartment," Soetoro-Ng said. "We take her out to get fresh air at sunset."

Dunham, however, still finds simple pleasures in her apartment, Soetoro-Ng said: "listening to books on tape and watching her grandson on CNN every day."

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com.