Sen. Barack Obama is a poker man, but his grandmother’s game of choice is bridge. Duplicate bridge, to be exact.In poker, a good player can still bluff his way through a lousy hand. In duplicate bridge, different sets of players are made to play the same hands multiple times — accentuating the players’ skill while reducing the element of luck.Madelyn Payne Dunham never taught her “Barry” how to play bridge, yet she gave him the tools to make the most of the cards life dealt him.This is the woman who raised Obama in the absence of his parents. 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.”She’s also the “white grandmother” cited in Obama’s speech on race. The woman who, though she loved him “as much as she loves anything in this world,” once confessed “her fear of black men who passed by her on the street” and who was capable of uttering “racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”Frail and zealously shielded from a prying media, the 85-year-old woman Obama affectionately calls “Toot” won’t be in Denver when he takes the stage at the Democratic National Convention. But as the Illinois senator becomes the first black man to accept a major party’s presidential nomination, friends and family will be looking for glimpses of the white woman who had as much to do with shaping his character as anyone.Madelyn Lee Payne was born in October 1922 in the tiny Kansas town of Peru. Not long thereafter, Rolla Payne moved his young family to the nearby boomtown of Augusta, population about 5,000.It was a place Obama would describe in his memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” as one “where decency and endurance and the pioneer spirit were joined at the hip with conformity and suspicion and the potential for unblinking cruelty.”Rolla and his wife, Leona, a teacher, lived in a “company house” at the edge town. The one-story frame house had three bedrooms, an indoor bathroom, a front porch that went the full width of the house and another enclosed one out back where Leona Payne did the family laundry.Behind the house were the racks where the oil company stored its pipe and about 100 feet away was the office where Rolla Payne worked. Next door was the empty lot where the Paynes and other neighborhood kids played baseball.Madelyn was the oldest of four children. Fifteen years separate her and the baby, Jack.“She called us ‘the kids,”’ remembers her younger sister Margaret Payne, who shared a bedroom with Madelyn and is known in the family by her middle name, Arlene.“I would say she more liked to ignore us,” says Payne, 82, a retired statistics professor now living in Chapel Hill, N.C. “But that was the age difference, and not that she was mean or anything.”In a family of avid readers, Madelyn was voracious.In 1939, when Simon & Schuster introduced the U.S. to paperbacks with its Pocket Books series, Madelyn subscribed. She devoured titles like James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon,” Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights,” “Five Great Tragedies” by Shakespeare and “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” by Agatha Christie — which fed a lifelong love of murder mysteries.The Bible was also a constant in the Payne household. Contrary to the image of Dust Bowl, Depression-era Kansas, the Payne children weren’t force-fed the Scriptures at the dining room table.“No, that was an individual effort,” says brother Charles, 83, the closest in age to her.In his memoir, Obama writes that his grandmother’s family “generally shunned the tent revival circuit, preferring a straight-backed form of Methodism that valued reason over passion and temperance over both.” Some have reported that the Paynes looked askance at dancing and card-playing, but Jack says his parents were big pinochle fans.The Paynes were Republicans. But classmate Francine Buchanan recalls that they allowed her mother to take Madelyn to Wichita to hear Franklin D. Roosevelt speak.Augusta was far from diverse. There were only two black families in town, but Charles Payne — a retired assistant director of the University of Chicago library — is proud to report they attended the same schools as the white kids.Leona Payne had some Indian blood in her veins, which Obama says was a “source of considerable shame” to her. Leona, he wrote, “blanched whenever someone mentioned the subject and hoped to carry the secret to her grave.”Her daughter, on the other hand, “would turn her head in profile to show off her beaked nose, which along with a pair of jet-black eyes, was offered as proof of Cherokee blood.”Madelyn was a good student, always in the first division in school. In a 1937 school annual, her student quote was, “Don’t judge me by name.”“The thought occurred to me maybe that would be a good slogan for her grandson,” jokes Mack Gilkeson, who attended classes with Dunham from third through 10th grade and palled around with her after school.There wasn’t much to do in Augusta.The gang would hike to the town lake, or catch a serial at the Augusta Theatre on State Street, one of the first cinemas around to have air conditioning. Kids went to one of the town’s two drug stores — Cooper’s or Carr’s — for ice cream sodas or to Lehr’s for fried chicken.When they got older, Madelyn and her chums would catch a ride to Wichita and its famous Blue Moon dance pavilion.“Oh, all of the good bands came there,” says Nina Parry, another classmate. “Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman ... Harry James. I don’t think there was a one from that era that we didn’t have at the Blue Moon.”Madelyn and the other girls would often gather at Parry’s house for slumber parties. It was at one such sleep over, a couple of weeks before graduation in 1940, that Madelyn dropped a bombshell — she’d gotten married without her parents’ permission.Stanley Dunham was from the nearby town of El Dorado. In his book, Obama paints the scene of Rolla Payne’s first impression of the boy with the “black, slicked-back hair and his perpetual wise-guy grin.”“He looks like a wop,” he quotes Rolla as saying.“It was not pleasant for my parents,” brother Charles recalls. It was the first real proof of a fierce independent streak.Stanley joined the Army after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann, was born in Wichita in November 1942.While Dunham was moving from base to base, Madelyn went back home with her daughter. She landed a job on the night shift at the Boeing plant 15 miles down Highway 54 in Wichita, commuting each day.Madelyn was a supervisor on the B-29 bomber assembly line. She wasn’t exactly “Rosie the Riveter” — more like “Rosie the Quality-Control Inspector.”When Stanley returned from the war, the family moved to California, where he attended the University of California-Berkeley on the GI Bill. Madelyn audited some classes, but she never got a degree — something that family members say always bothered her.After the war, Stanley took a series of jobs in the furniture business that carried the family to Texas, to Washington and back to Kansas. Madelyn took odd jobs to supplement the family’s income (Gilkeson remembers seeing his old classmate working as a hostess at a Wichita restaurant).Stanley Dunham’s career eventually landed the family in Hawaii. It was there that they met their future son-in-law, and they handled it much better than Madelyn’s parents had dealt with her surprise.When the Dunhams invited Barack Hussein Obama Sr. over for dinner, they thought the Kenyan was nothing more than a classmate their daughter had met at the University of Hawaii. Details of the meeting are vague, but the future senator painted a picture of it in his mind’s eye.“Gramps is probably too busy telling one of his jokes or arguing with Toot (their version of the Hawaiian word “Tutu,” or grandparent) over how to cook the steaks to notice my mother reach out and squeeze the smooth, sinewy hand beside hers,” he writes. “Toot notices, but she’s polite enough to bite her lip and offer dessert; her instincts warn her against making a scene.”Young Barack was born on Aug. 4, 1961. When his father left Hawaii to pursue his education, Barry and his mother stayed behind.Aside from a four-year interlude during which he lived in Indonesia with his mother and stepfather, Obama spent his childhood in Honolulu — most of it in his grandparents’ two-bedroom, high-rise apartment at 1617 S. Beretania St.He writes fondly of looking up from the basketball court to find Toot watching him practice from the 10th-floor window. He has vivid memories of his grandmother heading to the office.“Every morning, she woke up at five a.m. and changed from the frowsy muu-muus (sic) she wore around the apartment into a tailored suit and high-heeled pumps,” he writes.Obama says Toot took a secretarial job at Bank of Hawaii “to help defray the costs of my unexpected birth.”Despite her lack of a college degree, Dunham painstakingly worked her way up the ranks at “Bankoh” until, in 1970, she was named one of the islands’ first female vice presidents. But her laborious climb left her with somewhat of a chip on her shoulder.Dennis Ching remembers an encounter he had with Dunham his first day as a management trainee in 1966. She gave him an escrow file and said: “Here. You graduated (from college), so you should be able to figure out this file.”He botched it totally, but it was a valuable learning experience.“I was young and just graduated and thought I could kill the world,” says Ching, now owner of his own escrow firm. “She really put me straight. She made a point of indicating that experience is equitable to going to college — and she was right.”Obama knew that his grandfather resented his wife’s position as the family breadwinner. But he later learned that she “never stopped dreaming of a house with a white picket fence, days spent baking or playing bridge or volunteering at the local library.”In “Dreams,” Obama describes his grandparents as “vaguely liberal.”He recounts an incident in which his grandmother was upbraided for addressing a black janitor, a World War II veteran, as “Mr. Reed.” Despite the warning, she continued to use the honorific.“‘Your grandfather and I just figured we should treat people decently, Bar,”’ he remembers her telling him. “She’s wise that way, my grandmother, suspicious of overwrought sentiments or overblown claims, content with common sense.”But it was another incident, one to which he was a party, that had a most profound effect on the biracial teenager.Toot had asked her husband for a ride to work because a particularly aggressive panhandler had accosted her for money the day before. When Stanley refused, his grandson couldn’t understand why.“She’s been bothered by men before,” his grandfather explained, according to the memoir. “Before you came in, she told me the fella was black. That’s the real reason why she’s bothered.”Obama described the words as “like a fist in my stomach.” It was a life-changing moment for him.“Never had they given me reason to doubt their love; I doubted if they ever would,” he writes. “And yet I knew that men who might easily have been my brothers could still inspire their rawest fears.”Obama referred to the incident again this spring when racially charged comments by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, forced him to make what many now consider a seminal speech on race relations in America.“I can no more disown him,” he told an audience in Philadelphia in March, “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 by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”Charles Payne says his sister’s response to the reference was “like, ’Oh, well.”’ But his reaction was that Obama shouldn’t have shared that anecdote.“She was really a very liberal person; liberal in politics and, I think, liberal in thinking,” says the brother, who has worked hard on his great-nephew’s campaign. “Frankly ... that story, when it was in the book, I felt didn’t need to be in there.”On the whole, Obama acknowledges the debt he owes his grandmother — in much the same way he does that which he owes the imperfect nation poised to consider electing him its president.She took him on his first tour of the contiguous United States, traveling by Greyhound bus and stopping at Howard Johnson’s along the way. She showed him the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Disneyland and, finally, Chicago — the city where he would hone his skills as a community organizer, meet his future wife and launch his political career.His sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, says many of the qualities that got Obama this far came from Toot.“From our grandmother, he gets his pragmatism, his levelheadedness, his ability to stay centered in the eye of the storm,” she told The Associated Press. “His sensible, no-nonsense (side) is inherited from her.”Dunham retired from Bankoh in 1986. But she hasn’t just sat back.Over the years she’s worked for various charitable organizations. She did volunteer at the local library, as well as the Oahu Circuit Court, where she served as a court observer, probate aide and arbitrator for the Juvenile Monetary Restitution Program.“A demanding, sharp and feisty woman,” laughs Chief Clerk Naomi Komenaka, who supervised Dunham in the program and remembers her bringing a tough but grandmotherly style to the task. “I used to think, ’I don’t know who’s the supervisor here — me or her.”’And, as always, there was bridge.“When Stanley was still alive, they would go on cruises around the islands and they’d do nothing but play bridge,” says brother Jack. “She and Stanley were vicious bridge players.”Her longtime partner died in 1992, but she continued to play, as many as six days a week. Until a few years ago, when failing eyesight and osteoporosis got the better of her, she would go to the brick recreation center at the Ala Wai Community Park near Waikiki to play duplicate bridge with the Honolulu Seniors.She doesn’t get out much these days, especially with the glare of the cameras. But she’s far from disengaged.About a year ago, brother Jack says, she had a corneal transplant. He says it was mainly so she could watch television, “to see what’s going on with Barack.”And, no doubt, to watch how he plays his cards.———AP National Writer Sharon Cohen in Chicago contributed to this report.
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