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Madelyn Lee Payne Dunham ( ; October 26, 1922 – November 2, 2008) was the Americanmarker maternal grandmother of Barack Obama, the President of the United States of Americamarker. She and her husband Stanley Armour Dunham raised Obama from age ten in their Honolulu, Hawaiimarker apartment, where on November 2, 2008, she died two days before her grandson was elected the 44th President of the United States.

Early life

Madelyn Lee Payne was born in Peru, Kansasmarker, the eldest daughter of Rolla Charles "R.C." Payne and Leona Belle (McCurry) Payne. In Barack Obama's memoir, Dreams From My Father, he describes them as "stern Methodist parents who did not believe in drinking, playing cards or dancing." She moved with her parents to Augusta, Kansasmarker at the age of three. Madelyn was an honor roll student and one of the best students at Augusta High School, where she graduated in 1940. Despite her strict upbringing, she liked to go to Wichita, Kansasmarker to see big band concerts. While in Wichita, she met Kansas-born Stanley Armour Dunham from the oil-town of El Dorado, Kansasmarker and the "other side of the railroad tracks." Described as "gregarious, friendly, impetuous, challenging and loud," he was a furniture salesman "who could charm the legs off a couch." Madelyn's parents did not approve of their marriage, which occurred on May 5, 1940, which was the night of Madelyn's senior prom.

During World War II, Stanley Dunham enlisted in the Army. Madelyn worked the night shift on a Boeing B-29 assembly line in Wichitamarker. Her brother Charlie Payne was part of the 89th Infantry Division, which liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwaldmarker, a fact Barack Obama has referred to in speeches.

Madelyn gave birth to a daughter they named Stanley Ann, who was later known as Ann, at Fort Leavenworthmarker on November 29, 1942. With Madelyn and Stanley both working full-time, the family moved to Berkeley, Californiamarker, Ponca City, Oklahomamarker, Vernon, Texasmarker, El Dorado, Kansasmarker, Seattle, Washingtonmarker and finally settled in Mercer Island, Washingtonmarker, where Ann graduated from Mercer Island High School. In El Dorado, Kansasmarker, Stanley had managed a furniture store while Madelyn worked in restaurants. In Seattle, Stanley worked in a bigger furniture store (Standard-Grunbaum Furniture) while Madelyn eventually became vice-president of a local bank. Mercer Island was then "a rural, idyllic place," quiet, politically conservative and all white. Madelyn and Stanley attended Sunday services at the East Shore Unitarian Church in nearby Bellevuemarker. While in Washington Madelyn attended the University of Washingtonmarker although she never completed a degree.

Madelyn and Stanley then moved to Hawaii, where he found a better furniture store opportunity. She started working at the Bank of Hawaii in 1960 and was promoted to be one of the first female bank vice presidents in 1970. In 1970s Honolulu, both women and the minority white population were routinely the target of discrimination.

Ann attended the University of Hawaii and while she was there she met Barack Obama a graduate student from East Africamarker. Both Dunhams were upset when their daughter married Obama Sr., particularly after receiving a long, angry letter from Obama's father who "didn't want the Obama blood sullied by a white woman." The Dunhams adapted, however. Madelyn Dunham was quoted as saying, "I am a little dubious of the things that people from foreign countries tell me."

Raising Barack Obama

After the Obama marriage fell apart, the young Barack spent four years with his mother and her second husband in Jakarta, Indonesiamarker. He returned to the United States at age ten to live with his maternal grandparents in the Makiki district of Honolulumarker and enrolled in the fifth grade at the Punahou Schoolmarker. The tuition fees for the prestigious preparatory school were paid with the aid of scholarships. Ann would later come back to Hawaii and pursue graduate studies; she eventually earned a PhD in anthropology and went on to be employed on development projects in Indonesia and around the world helping impoverished women obtain microfinance. When she returned to Indonesia in 1977 for her Masters' fieldwork, Obama stayed in the United States with his grandparents. Obama writes in his memoir, Dreams From My Father, "I’d arrived at an unspoken pact with my grandparents: I could live with them and they'd leave me alone so long as I kept my trouble out of sight."
Dunham in about 1950

Obama and his half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng referred to Madelyn Dunham as "Toot" — short for "tutu," the Hawaiian word for grandmother. In his book, Obama described his grandmother as "quiet yet firm", in contrast to Obama's "boisterous" grandfather Stanley. Obama considered his grandmother "a trailblazer of sorts, the first woman vice-president of a local bank." Her colleagues recall her as a "tough boss" who would make you "sink or swim", but who had a "soft spot for those willing to work hard." She retired from the Bank of Hawaii in 1986.

During an interview for Vanity Fair, Obama said, “She was the opposite of a dreamer, at least by the time I knew her... Whether that was always the case or whether she scaled back her dreams as time went on and learned to deal with certain disappointments is not entirely clear. But she was just a very tough, sensible, no-nonsense person.” During his teenage years, it was his grandmother who “injected” into him “a lot of that very midwestern, sort of traditional sense of prudence and hard work,” even though “some of those values didn’t sort of manifest themselves until I got older.”

During an interview with Diane Sawyer, "She never got a college education, but is one of the smartest people I know... She's where I get my practical streak. That part of me that's hardheaded, I get from her. She's tough as nails."

Obama said his iconic image of his grandmother was seeing her come home from work and trading her business outfit and girdle for a muumuu, some slippers and a drink and a cigarette.

Madelyn's later life

Until her death, Dunham lived in the same small high-rise apartment where she raised her grandson Barack. She was an avid bridge player, but mostly stayed at home in her apartment "listening to books on tape and watching her grandson on CNN every day." Madelyn Dunham suffered from severe osteoporosis. In 2008, she underwent both corneal transplant and hip replacement surgeries.

2008 presidential campaign

Madelyn Dunham was generally not seen in the 2008 presidential campaign. In March 2008, the 85-year-old Dunham was quoted as saying, "I am not giving any interviews...I am in poor health."

On March 18, 2008, in a speech on race relations in Philadelphiamarker in the wake of controversial videos of Obama's pastor Jeremiah Wright surfacing, Obama described his grandmother:

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 by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

On March 20, 2008, in a radio interview on Philadelphia's WIP , Obama explained this remark by saying:
The point I was making was not that my grandmother harbors any racial animosity - she doesn't. But she is a typical white person, who, if she sees somebody on the street that she doesn't know...there's a reaction that's been bred into our experiences that don't go away and that sometimes come out in the wrong way, and that's just the nature of race in our society.

Obama's use of the phrase "typical white person" was highlighted by a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and subsequently picked up by commentators on the Huffington Post blog, ABC News and other media outlets. In a CNN interview, when Larry King asked him to clarify the "typical white person" remark, Obama said:

Well, what I meant really was that some of the fears of street crime and some of the stereotypes that go along with that were responses that I think many people feel. She's not extraordinary in that regard. She is somebody that I love as much as anybody. I mean, she has literally helped to raise me. But those are fears that are embedded in our culture, and embedded in our society, and even within our own families, even within a family like mine that is diverse.

Dennis Ching, who worked with her for more than 40 years, "never heard her say anything like that. I never heard her say anything negative about anything." Hawaiian State Senator Sam Slom, who worked with her at the Bank of Hawaii, said "I never heard Madelyn say anything disparaging about people of African ancestry or Asian ancestry or anybody's ancestry." Her brother, Charlie Payne, told the Associated Press that his sister's reaction to being made a campaign issue was "no more than just sort of raised eyebrows."

In April 2008, Madelyn Dunham appeared briefly in her first campaign ad for her grandson, saying that Obama had "a lot of depth, and a broadness of view."

In a September 10, 2008 interview with the Late Show with David Letterman, Obama described his grandmother as follows:
Eighty-seven years old. She can't travel. She has terrible osteoporosis so she can't fly, but, you know, she has been the rock of our family and she is sharp as a tack. I mean, she's just - she follows everything, but she has a very subdued, sort of Midwestern attitude about these things. So when I got nominated, she called and said, ‘That's nice, Barry, that's nice.'"

On October 20, 2008, the Obama campaign announced that he would suspend campaign events on October 23 and 24 to spend some time with Dunham. His communications director told reporters that she had fallen ill in the preceding weeks, and that while she was released from the hospital the week before, her health had deteriorated "to the point where her situation is very serious." In an October 23, 2008 interview with CBS News, Obama described his grandmother as follows: "She has really been the rock of the family, the foundation of the family. Whatever strength, discipline - that - that I have - it comes from her."


On November 2, 2008 (November 3, 2008 in the continental United States), the Obama campaign announced that Madelyn Dunham had "died peacefully after a battle with cancer" in Hawaii. Senator Obama and his sister Maya released a statement saying, "She was the cornerstone of our family, and a woman of extraordinary accomplishment, strength, and humility." At a rally in Charlotte, North Carolinamarker on November 3, Obama said, "She was one of those quiet heroes that we have all across America. They’re not famous. Their names are not in the newspapers, but each and every day they work hard. They aren’t seeking the limelight. All they try to do is just do the right thing." Dunham's absentee ballot, received by the election office on October 27, was included in Hawaii's total.

On December 23, 2008, after a private memorial service at the First Unitarian Church of Honolulumarker, Obama and his sister scattered their grandmother's ashes in the ocean at Lanai Lookoutmarker. It was the same spot where they had scattered their mother's ashes in 1995.


Madelyn Payne Dunham's heritage consists mostly of English ancestors, and smaller amounts of Scottish, Welsh, Irish and German ancestors, who settled in the American colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Her most recent native European ancestor was her great-great grandfather, Robert Perry, who was born in Anglesey, Walesmarker in 1786 and whose father, Henry Perry, first settler of Radnor, Ohiomarker in 1803. Robert Perry's wife, Sarah Hoskins, was also born in Wales and immigrated to Delaware County, Ohiomarker as a young child. Wild Bill Hickok is Madelyn's sixth cousin, four times removed. According to oral tradition, her mother had some Cherokee ancestors, although researchers have found no concrete evidence of this to date.

Ancestry chart source: New England Historic Genealogical Society


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