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Obama's Grandmother Dies Before Election Day

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On the final day of his historic run for president, Barack Obama got this sad news. His grandmother had passed away. Madelyn Payne Dunham died of cancer in Hawaii. Obama teared up as he spoke of her last night, and he issued a statement. She was, he said, one of the cornerstones of his life. NPR's Allison Keyes has this remembrance.

ALLISON KEYES: Dunham had been too ill to appear with her grandson on the campaign trail, though he spoke of her often, particularly at crucial moments in his political career.

(Soundbite of Obama Democratic Nomination Victory Speech)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): Tonight I can stand here and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for the president of the United States of America.

(Soundbite of crowd ovation)

KEYES: But on that historic night in June, he paused before his prepared speech to acknowledge his grandma.

Senator OBAMA: Thank you to my grandmother who helped raise me and is sitting in Hawaii somewhere right now because she can't travel, but who poured everything she had into me and who helped to make me the man I am today. Tonight is for her.

(Soundbite of crowd ovation)

KEYES: Obama also discussed his grandmother in his March speech about race where he talked about growing up in a mixed-race household. The speech was a response to controversy over racial remarks by Obama's former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

(Soundbite of Obama speech)

Senator OBAMA: I can no more disown him than I can disown 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...

KEYES: Obama was born in Hawaii, the son of a Kenyan man and a white Kansas woman. When he was 11, his mother, Ann Dunham, sent him to live with his grandparents. In Honolulu, Obama spent years living in a two-bedroom apartment with his grandmother and grandfather, Stanley Dunham. During World War II, Madelyn Payne Dunham worked on a bomber assembly line. She also worked her way up to vice president at a local bank after the war. With just two weeks to go before the presidential election, Obama left the campaign trail to visit her in Honolulu. She had recently broken her hip, and Obama told ABC visiting her was important to him.

(Soundbite of ABC interview with Barack Obama)

Senator OBAMA: You know, one of the things I want to make sure of is that I had a chance to sit down with her and talk to her. She's still alert, and she's still got all her faculties. And I want to make sure that that I don't miss that opportunity right now.

KEYES: Obama has said the biggest regret of his life was not making it to his mother's bedside before she died in 1995. In a rare 2004 interview with The Chicago Tribune, Dunham said she supposed she had provided some stability in Obama's life. Madelyn Payne Dunham was 86 years old. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: He said, you know, I got my toughness from Toot, you know, because she taught him with her quiet confidence and that love and support that he could do anything, just deep love and admiration.

KEYES: In a rare 2004 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Dunham said she supposed she had provided some stability in Obama's life. Madelyn Payne Dunham was 86 years old.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Allison Keyes. It's NPR News.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Allison Keyes
Allison Keyes is an award-winning journalist with almost 20 years of experience in print, radio, and television. She has been reporting for NPR's national desk since October 2005. Her reports can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition Sunday.