In Hawaii on the Trail of the New President
A Guided Tour of Obama Country
Led by an Old Friend
By Edward Shanahan
Besides its inviting beaches, rugged mountains, temperate climate and rich, polyglot population, visitors to Hawaii today might want to take a free-lance tour that traces the footsteps of Barack Obama.
We did. Our guide for this work in progress was Jim Kelly, business journalist, resident of Honolulu and long-time friend.
Tour Guide Jim Kelly and his 1968 Olds
For those of you who read Obama’s beautifully written autobiography “Dreams from My Father,” you will recall that now President Obama was born in 1961 in Hawaii, lived there for the first six years of his life, then went with his mother to live in Indonesia before returning to Hawaii as a 10-year-old to enter fifth grade at the prestigious Punahou private school, which has been the educating Hawaii’s elite for more than 150 years.
During this period of his life, Obama lived with his grandparents, Madelyn and Stanley Dunham, while his mother remained in the Far East. After graduating from Punahou, the future president attended to Occidental College in California, then headed off to Columbia University in New York City and after working in Chicago for a period of time, attended and graduated from the Harvard Law School.
But judging by his affection for his grandparents, who more or less raised him during a pivotal time in his life, Obama’s experience in Hawaii has forged a lasting link to that rarified island, which has the feel of a foreign country rather than a nation’s 50th state and which, indeed, became a state only 50 years ago. Some believe that it was Hawaii’s influence on Obama that accounts for his tranquil, even serene, nature and his contagious self-confidence.
Riding in Jim Kelly’s 1968 Oldsmobile 98 convertible, which drew admiring glances from passersby, we first were taken by the hospital where
Obama was born and then traveled to a nearby, well-off neighborhood near the University of Hawaii where Barry, as he was known, resided in a comfortable home with his mother and her parents before she took him to Indonesia.
Display at Obama's grandmother's apartment house
When Obama returned to attend Punahou, his grandparents economic fortunes had declined and they moved to a high-rise apartment house, where he lived until he left for the college on the mainland, and where his grandparents continued to live until recently when his grandmother died. Her husband had passed away earlier as had Obama’s mother, who died in 1995.
Just up the street from the apartment house, located in a middle class, mixed-use neighborhood, was the movie theater that Obama went to, although it is now an auto parts store, and the Baskin and Robbins ice cream shop where he worked part-time in his student years. On the other side of a broad street from there is the school playground with multiple baseball courts where Barry shot hoops with his pals.
Finally, our tour ended up on the lush, exquisitely maintained and altogether inviting campus of Punahou School, which we can imagine was both a place of great comfort for Obama, but also a source of conflict because he was an anomaly on the campus at the time – an African American boy and a child from a financially distressed and fractured family.
But, walking through the peaceful campus on a quiet Sunday, it was easy to surmise that it was here that Obama gained his resolve, his discipline and his optimism. That is the power of a good educational experience.
Punahou School Grounds
At the end of the tour, we felt we had a slightly better sense of the boy and his beginnings, the youth and the challenges, the young man and the opportunities before him, if he would just seize them. And so he did.
We suggested to Jim Kelly that his tour might have tapped into something that would inspire others who might want to walk in Barack Obama’s footsteps too, both figuratively and literally.
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