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Summer 2008 online edition

The Myth of Barack Obama's Early Life

by Michael Patrick Leahy

page 3 of 9

Blake recalls that Stanley Ann was always a little afraid of her father, who was an independent spirit.(14)

Because both her parents worked, Stanley Ann would walk home after school with her friend Maxine Box. They would stop at Maxine's house where they would both do their homework, and Maxine's mother, who was a mom who stayed at home, would feed them some of her delicious chocolate cake. (15)

Susan Blake also recalls Stanley Ann's manners and graciousness:

They had a nice house that was well organized with the ultimate in modern Danish furniture. Stanley Ann was their only child. When she came over to my house, where we had all sorts of kids and constant activity, it was like she was walking in a trance, but she was always polite and gracious to my parents. Most kids kind of just looked down at their shoes, but Stanley Ann interacted with my mother in a gracious way. She was almost like Eddie Haskell in her politeness. (16)

Mercer Island was nothing like the Kansas, Oklahoma, or Texas she had known.

At Mercer High School, two teachers -- Val Foubert and Jim Wichterman -- generated regular parental thunderstorms by teaching their students to challenge societal norms and question all manner of authority. Foubert, who died recently, taught English. His texts were cutting edge: "Atlas Shrugged," "The Organization Man," "The Hidden Persuaders," "1984" and the acerbic writings of H. L. Mencken Wichterman taught philosophy. The hallway between the two classes was known as "anarchy alley," and students pondered the challenging notions of Wichterman's teachings, including such philosophers as Sartre and Kierkegaard. He also touched the societal third rail of the 1950s: He questioned the existence of God. And he didn't stop there.

"I had them read 'The Communist Manifesto,' and the parents went nuts," said Wichterman, adding that parents also didn't want any discussions about "anything to do with sex," religion and theology. The parental protests were known as "mothers' marches."

"The kids started questioning things that their folks thought shouldn't be questioned -- religion, politics, parental authority," said John Hunt, a classmate. "And a lot of parents didn't like that, and they tried to get them [Wichterman and Foubert] fired."

The Dunhams did not join the uproar. Madelyn and Stanley shed their Methodist and Baptist upbringing and began attending Sunday services at the East Shore Unitarian Church in nearby Bellevue.

"In the 1950s, this was sometimes known as 'the little Red church on the hill,' " said Peter Luton, the church's senior minister, referring to the effects of McCarthyism. Skepticism, the kind that Stanley embraced and passed on to his daughter, was welcomed here. For Stanley Ann, the teachings of Foubert and Wichterman provided an intellectual stimulant and an affirmation that there indeed was an interesting life beyond high school dances, football games and all-night slumber party chatter. (17)

The Dunhams surprised their neighbors in June 1960. One week after Stanley Ann's graduation from high school, Madelyn and Stanley Ann left their Mercer Island apartment, got an a plane, and moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where Stanley had gone before, securing a job with a furniture store and a place for the family to live.

Stanley Ann was not happy with the move. She had been accepted to both the University of Chicago and the University of Washington, and wanted to attend the University of Chicago. Stanley would not allow her to go, insisted that she move to Hawaii with the family. Shortly after their arrival, Madelyne got a job with a bank as a teller.

In September 1960, Stanley Ann enrolled as a freshman at the University of Hawaii. She was still only seventeen years old. While it's a fine university, the University of Hawaii is primarily a commuter school, and certainly young Ann must have thought it a bit of a come down, a waste of her own intellectual capabilities to sacrifice the hallowed halls of the University of Chicago for the parking lots of the University of Hawaii. In a somewhat unusual move, she added Basic Russian to the schedule of her first semester of classes.

In a letter that fall to her friend Susan Blake, she told that she had met an interesting African exchange student in her Russian Class.

I remember being more impressed that she was taking Russian than the fact she had met an African exchange student. We didn't have Russian at the University of Washington where I was attending at the time, and it seemed interesting and exotic. She wrote that she found the classes intellectually stimulating, and that it had the added benefit that she could attend classes wearing shorts and muu muus. I remember being envious of this. (18)

The successful Russian launch of the Sputnik satellite had created concern in the United States that we were falling behind our Cold War enemy, and Congress had passed the National Defense Education Act, which liberally provided funding for University level courses in math and science, but also supported courses in the Russian Language.

By 1960, thirty thousand college students were enrolled in Russian Language courses across the United States. (19) The University of Hawaii had started to offer instruction in that course by then, and the adventurous and precocious seventeen year old freshman decided to sign up for it.

One of the other students at the University of Hawaii who signed up for the same course that semester was Barack Obama Senior, a black twenty-four year old Kenyan who already had a wife, a two year old son, and an infant daughter in Africa. He had arrived at the University of Hawaii a year earlier, on what was called a Tom Mboya scholarship to study for a Bachelors degree in mathematics and economics. (20)

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Michael Patrick Leahy is the author of Letter to an Atheist, and Managing Editor of Christian Faith and Reason Magazine.

Comments are welcome. All comments will be read, not all comments will be posted. We may invite authors of the best comments to respond in full articles, to be published in our November edition.

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