Huffpost Politics

Barack Obama's Late Grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, Remembered

Posted: Updated:

HONOLULU — The late grandmother of President-elect Barack Obama was eulogized Friday as a strong, vibrant woman who was dedicated to her profession and her family.

About 150 friends, former co-workers and others gathered to pay their respects to Madelyn Dunham at a 45-minute ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

Dunham died Nov. 2 at the age of 86, two days before Obama won the presidency. She and her late husband, Stanley, raised him from 1971 until he graduated high school and left Hawaii in 1979.

Neither Obama nor his sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, attended. A private family ceremony is likely to be held sometime next month when Obama is expected to visit the islands.

"It broke his heart not to be here," said Emme Tomimbang, a friend of Obama's and the service's master of ceremonies. "Even though Barack and Maya couldn't be here physically, they were here in spirit. In fact, they both helped put this together."

In a letter that was read at the service, Obama and Soetoro-Ng said their maternal grandmother wanted no tears shed after her passing.

"Tutu taught us to be mindful and moderate, to be patient when calm was warranted and to act when action was necessary," the two wrote, using the Hawaiian word for grandmother.

"She liked playing bridge, a good mystery novel, jigsaw puzzles and an annual cruise. She was fiercely loyal and protective of those whom she loved, and had little patience for foolishness."

The Bank of Hawaii, where Dunham worked her way up over two dozen years from secretary to one of the firm's first woman vice presidents, also participated in the planning.

Former bank chairman Howard Stephenson recalled that Dunham trained most of the real estate professionals in Hawaii during her decades at the bank, using a wry, direct style that most eventually found memorable.

"This lady was quite unique," said Stephenson, 79, who hired Dunham into the bank in 1960. "She was never publicity seeking, never given to ostentation."

David Pietsch Jr., the president of Title Guaranty Escrow Services, described how Dunham had a way of letting new real estate professional know their place.

"Her hair was back in a little bun. I immediately knew she was tough," he remembered from his first encounter with her in 1970. "At the end of our meeting ... Madelyn said to me, 'By the way, do you mind if I call you junior?' And I immediately knew my position in the escrow community from there on out."

While many in the crowd knew or worked with Dunham, others made their way to the ceremony because of what they had heard or read about her and her grandson.

"I wanted to pay tribute to the woman who brought him up," said Ngozi Oleru, director of the environmental health services division in King County, Wash., who is in Honolulu on vacation. "I honor her. ... I felt personally deprived when she died before the election."

Lulu Bagnol, a college student living in Makaha, said all of her grandparents had died by the time she was a few months old.

"You hear how Obama speaks of his grandmother so fondly with love, you just wish you had one too," Bagnol said. "We just feel she's our grandmother too."

By the end of the ceremony, a large spread of flowers adorned the front of the lectern, including an arrangement from Dunham's 1940 high school class in Kansas.

A framed picture of Dunham was nearby, encircled with a lei made of maile leaves and pikake buds. Overlooking the ceremony was the stone relief sculpture of Lady Columbia, symbolic of grieving motherhood.

Dunham was cremated but will not be interred at the cemetery, where her husband's ashes are kept, said Tomimbang. She did not know what the family plans for Dunham's ashes.

Obama scattered the ashes of his mother, Stanley Ann, who died in 1995, from an Oahu shoreline.