The year was 1985 and Gerald Kellman, a community organizer, was interviewing an applicant named Barack Obama to work in the demoralized landscape of poor neighborhoods on this city's South Side. He liked the young man's intelligence, motivation and acutely personal understanding of how it felt to be an outsider. He also remembers that Mr. Obama drove a hard bargain.
In his memoir, Mr. Obama describes his organizing at Altgeld Gardens, a neglected housing project in Chicago. Shuttered buildings at the complex.
"He challenged me on whether we could teach him anything," Mr. Kellman recalled. "He wanted to know things like 'How are you going to train me?' and 'What am I going to learn?' "
Mr. Obama's three-year stretch as a grass-roots organizer has figured prominently, if not profoundly, in his own narrative of his life. Campaigning in Iowa, Mr. Obama called it "the best education I ever had, better than anything I got at Harvard Law School," an education that he said was "seared into my brain." He devoted about one-third of the 442 pages in his memoir, "Dreams From My Father," to chronicling that Chicago organizing period.