Sen. Barack Obama will cancel his presidential campaign stops and return here Thursday and Friday to visit his maternal grandmother who raised him, the woman he calls "Toot," whose health has suddenly deteriorated.
Madelyn Dunham, 85, recently had to be hospitalized after a fall, and "things have taken a serious turn," said Obama supporter Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii. "It's an accumulation of several difficulties. She's faced a lot of challenges.
"Things have taken a serious enough turn for Sen. Obama to come home," Abercrombie said. "It's his family. Everyone understands what's going on. The campaign is secondary. The campaign has its own velocity, its own trajectory."
Dunham has already voted for Obama through absentee balloting, "which she was very happy about," Abercrombie said. "She's very, very strong-willed. We have every confidence she's putting up a good struggle. Obviously, we wish Sen. Obama was coming back home under a little bit different circumstance. But any time in Hawaii will strengthen his resolve."
After her hospitalization, Dunham last week returned to the Beretania Street apartment where she raised Obama.
Obama regularly speaks about the important role that Dunham plays in his life. During an August family vacation in Honolulu, Obama told reporters that his grandmother was "sharp as a tack" but is struggling with osteoporosis that limits her mobility.
"She is somebody who helped raise me, and she's the last person of the generation ahead of me who's still living, so it means a lot to me to spend time with her," he said.
Obama grew up calling Dunham "Toot," short for "tutu," the local word for grandparent. Her osteoporosis prevented Dunham from joining Obama on the campaign trail, but she does appear in a campaign video.
Obama's decision to cancel campaign stops comes just two weeks before the Nov. 4 presidential election.
"His suspension of his campaign is indicative of his strong affection and love for his grandmother," said state Sen. Clayton Hee, D-23rd, (Kane'ohe, Kahuku), an early Obama supporter. "The circumstances obviously are very different from the vacation he took in the summer, no question about that. If there are people who think this is some kind of campaign ploy, it's a statement that says more about them than Sen. Obama. Anytime someone is seriously ill, it's a time for prayer and a time for privacy. I would expect that local people will rally silently and spiritually to support him at this time."
Somber trip home
This week's unexpected trip to visit Obama's grandmother will carry a decidedly different tone than the week-long family vacation that Obama spent in August after he clinched the Democratic Party presidential nomination.
Pictures circulated around the world of Obama bodysurfing at Sandy Beach, sharing shaved ice with his two daughters in Kailua and dropping a lei at Halona Blowhole — the same spot where he scattered his mother's ashes after her death from cancer in 1995.
During their vacation, Obama and his family visited Dunham at her apartment nearly every day. On the sixth day, Obama also left a lei at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl, where Obama's maternal grandfather, Stanley Dunham — a World War II veteran — is buried.
State tourism officials, at the time, said Obama's Hawaii vacation generated priceless publicity for the Islands as Hawaii's No. 1 industry — tourism — continued to stagnate.
But on this week's visit, "I think the residents of the state, the people of Hawaii, should definitely respect Sen. Obama and his family's privacy and leave him alone," said State Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser, D-7th (Kaua'i, Ni'ihau). "My heart and prayers go out to Barack Obama and his family at this difficult moment."
During her professional life, Dunham was a role model for female professionals in Hawaii and a female banking trailblazer in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In December 1970, Hawaii's top bank at the time — Bank of Hawaii — made Dunham one of two female vice presidents.
Robert Gibbs, the campaign's communications director, said Monday in a statement that "Senator Obama's grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, has always been one of the most important people in his life. Along with his mother and his grandfather, she raised him in Hawaii from the time he was born until the moment he left for college. As he said at the Democratic Convention, she poured everything she had into him."
Campaign events originally planned for Madison, Wis., and Des Moines on Thursday will be replaced with one in Indianapolis before Obama makes the long flight to Hawaii.
On Friday, Obama's wife, Michelle, will sub for Obama at rallies in Akron and Columbus, Ohio, said campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki. Obama returns to the campaign somewhere in the West, she said.
Obama, the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, attended Punahou School while Dunham helped raise him on Beretania Street. Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was helping craftsmen in Indonesia and Africa get small loans to improve their lives and their villages as she pursued her master's and doctoral degrees through the University of Hawaii.
In a campaign ad this year, Obama described Madelyn Dunham as the daughter of a Midwest oil company clerk who "taught me values straight from the Kansas heartland" — things like "accountability and self-reliance. Love of country. Working hard without making excuses. Treating your neighbor as you'd like to be treated."
He referred to Dunham — and her views on race — in a March 18 speech in Philadelphia designed to both denounce and defend his former, controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
In his speech, Obama linked Wright and Dunham 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 made a similar reference to Dunham in his memoir, Dreams from My Father, in which he recalled an argument when he was in high school at Punahou between Dunham and her husband, Stanley.
Dunham rode a bus to get to her bank job, and one day had been approached by a man who pressured her for money.
"I gave him a dollar and he kept asking," Obama quoted his grandmother in the book. "If the bus hadn't come, I think he might have hit me over the head."
Obama wrote that he offered to drive her to the bank, telling his grandfather, "It's really no big deal."
"It's a big deal to me," Stanley told his grandson. "She's been bothered by men before. You know why she's so scared this time? ... (S)he told me the fella was black."
Obama then wrote, "The words were like a fist in my stomach, and I wobbled to regain my composure. In my steadiest voice, I told him that such an attitude bothered me, too, but assured him that Toot's fears would pass and that we should give her a ride in the meantime."
In March, several Bank of Hawaii co-workers told The Advertiser they were stunned by Obama's words and had never heard Dunham make comments about anyone's ethnicity.
State Sen. Sam Slom, R-8th (Kahala, Hawaii Kai), was a Bank of Hawaii economist while Dunham was being promoted at Bank of Hawaii.
On Monday Slom said, "I wish her the best. I think she was a very professional woman who broke many barriers here in the state. I have the utmost respect and aloha for her. It was an honor to work with her and be in her presence."
Slom said, "my prayers go to the family. They've been the beneficiaries of her kindness."
Contributing: Derrick DePledge of The Honolulu Advertiser; the Associated Press