Obama's grandmother blazed trail

Barack Obama's trailblazing effort to become the nation's first black president has a family precedent.

Madelyn Dunham, Obama's grandmother, blazed a feminist trail in Hawaii banking circles in the late 1960s and early 1970s and rose to become one of the Bank of Hawaii's first female vice presidents.

Durham, now 85 and living in Honolulu along with her granddaughter and Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, had two obstacles to overcome in Hawaii at the time — being a woman and being part of the state's white minority.

"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."

Obama and Soetoro-Ng lived with their grandparents Stanley and Madelyn Dunham, and later with their mother, Ann Dunham, in 1970s Honolulu, where white people were routinely the target of discrimination.

Sam Slom, a Bank of Hawaii economist then, who is now a Republican state senator in Hawaii, recalls that as a part of the white — or "haole" — minority in Hawaii, he would regularly see housing ads that made no effort to hide racial preferences. He says he remembers ads that read, "No haoles" or "AJAs (Americans of Japanese ancestry) Only" or "No Japanese."

"That's the way it was," Slom said. "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."

Madelyn Dunham's views on race came into play in a speech Obama gave March 18 in Philadelphia designed to both denounce and defend his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

In the speech, Obama linked Wright and his grandmother 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's campaign declined to make Dunham available for interviews or to say whether the Illinois senator alerted her before delivering the speech.

Dunham has repeatedly declined to comment to reporters, and Soetoro-Ng declined to comment on Obama's speech about Wright or their grandmother's attitudes on race.

Others who know Dunham were caught off guard by that mention in Obama's speech.

"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."

" I never heard Madelyn say anything disparaging about people of African ancestry or Asian ancestry or anybody's ancestry," Slom said.

Dunham was born Madelyn Payne in Peru, Kan., on Oct. 26, 1922. When she was 3 years old, Payne's family moved to Augusta, Kan., where young Madelyn was raised, Soetoro-Ng said. She married Stanley Armour Dunham in 1940. Madelyn Dunham attended college at the University of Washington before becoming an aircraft inspector for Boeing during World War II.

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

Dunham used to love playing bridge six days a week at friends' homes and at the community center near Waikiki, but she has had to slow down, Soetoro-Ng said.

Like her brother, Soetoro-Ng refers to Dunham as "Toot" — short for "tutu," the Hawaiian word for grandparent.

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

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

Most of Dunham's close friends who knew her best are dead, Soetoro-Ng said. Several current and former Bank of Hawaii executives remember her as a tough boss with a soft side for those willing to work hard.

"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 the Bank of Hawaii in 1969 as a 26-year-old management trainee in the loan department. He admitted feeling pressure from Dunham's tough 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."

Nakaso reports for The Honolulu Advertiser. Contributing: Kathy Kiely.