Barack Obama’s Hawaii Roots

Barack Obama and John Kolivas

Classmates Barack Obama and John Kolivas in the 1970s | Courtesy of John Kolivas 

As President  Barack Obama delivered his Inaugural Address today, entering his second term in office on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, you couldn’t help but think of the struggles of the past, and how there are many more opportunities open to us (all Americans) nowadays. It also made me think of the stories that Obama’s sister, Maya, and his friends shared with me when he first ran for president in 2008.

For instance, a friend of mine, John Kolivas, pictured in the faded photo above, described this moment as just two local kids hanging out at school, having fun. And they both happened to be “hapa.”  Kolivas is now a gifted jazz musician, who also teaches at their alma mater, Punahou. He still recalls how much his friend, known as “Barry” back then, made him laugh that day. That classmate went on to become President Obama.

Here’s a look back at how Obama’s journey began, growing up during his early years in Hawaii.

Hawaii Helped Shape Barack Obama
Aired on Voice of America, August 12, 2008
By Heidi Chang

Listen to the Story (4:43)

Click here to view this story on VOA

Barack Obama

Barack Obama says his values were influenced by Hawaii’s “Aloha Spirit” | Photo by Gig Greenwood

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Ever since he announced he was running for president, Obama has talked a lot about his community organizing activities in Chicago, and how it led to his bid for public office. But long before that, he was living on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And those who knew Obama back then say the lessons he learned in Hawaii have served him well in this campaign.

Barack Obama may be Illinois’ favorite son, but earlier this year, during the Hawaii Democratic caucuses, he reminded people that he hadn’t forgotten where he came from. “Almost 50 years ago, my family came to Hawaii in search of a better life,” he says in a TV campaign ad. “I was born here and grew up here. This beautiful state and its great people hold a special place in my heart.”

Obama’s parents — Barack Obama Senior, from Kenya, and Ann Dunham from Kansas — met at the University of Hawaii. But the marriage didn’t last. A few years after her divorce, Obama’s mother married a man from Indonesia and the family moved to Jakarta. That’s where his sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, was born.

Maya Soetoro-Ng

Maya Soetoro-Ng campaigns for her brother | Photo © George Waialeale


After four years, young Barack returned to Hawaii, where he lived with his maternal grandparents. His mother and sister followed soon after. Soetoro- Ng says that’s when her brother dove into Island life. “He liked to go body surfing and he liked to play basketball with his friends because he was a regular guy, he wasn’t particularly motivated in high school academically.”

John Kolivas

Classmate John Kolivas | Photo © Heidi Chang


Obama attended Punahou, one of the top private schools in Hawaii, with help from financial aid. John Kolivas, one of his classmates, points out that they had a lot in common. “You know, for my own background I’m half Korean, half Greek, and he’s also half, half, they call that “hapa” here in Hawaii.” He says race wasn’t an issue for the two friends, “we just enjoyed each other’s company and we didn’t think of each other in terms of race.”

Dan Hale

Classmate Dan Hale | Photo © Heidi Chang


Obama played on Punahou’s basketball team, and in 1979, his senior year, they won the state championship. His teammate Dan Hale, remembers being impressed by Obama’s ability to communicate and resolve disputes. “He was always one that could step right up and kind of get to the heart of the matter and, so everybody could kinda move on and not get stuck on [questions like] whose foul it was, or was that basket good, or what was the score, or whatever. And you know, he’d kinda just use that smile and that kinda real sense of reason.” Hale says he sees that quality in the candidate today, even though he admits that there are now a lot bigger issues at stake than a pick-up basketball game score.

Alice Dewey

Alice Dewey was academic advisor to Obama’s mother and remains a family friend | Photo © Heidi Chang


Obama’s ability to connect with people doesn’t surprise Alice Dewey. She was his mother’s dissertation advisor at the University of Hawaii, where she got her doctorate in anthropology. Dewey says Ann Dunham was passionate about getting micro credit loans for craftspeople, especially women, in rural areas of developing countries, and she passed on her sense of compassion to her son. “Her caring for the impoverished people in the developing world was her life’s work. And I think he [Obama] grew up thinking that’s what you did. You help people.”

Dunham did field work with communities in Indonesia, Pakistan, Kenya and other nations. Dewey notes that Obama did community work in the south side of Chicago, adding “He’s done that when he could have taken at job at a fancy law firm after he finished his degree in law at Harvard.”

Obama’s sister Maya agrees they were inspired by their mother’s international vision. And she says Hawaii, with its multicultural openness and aloha spirit, has always been a vital place for her brother, mentally and spiritually.

“I think it was Hawaii that made him so broad and spacious and that forced him really to learn how to talk to different kinds of people and to not make assumptions about who they are or what they need. And to also recognize that on a very fundamental level we are all the same. And I think one of my brother’s many strengths is that he is able to help people find common ground.”

Barack Obama

Barack Obama speaks at a rally in Honolulu in 2008 | Photo © Heidi Chang


Obama’s ability to bring people together has inspired a wave of support across the nation. And with the general election just months away, polls show Barack Obama has a good chance of becoming the nation’s 44th President. If that happens, Dan Hale has one request of his former basketball teammate. “Don’t forget to invite me to the first pick-up game at the White House!”

Hawaii Helped Shape Barack Obama won a first place award for General News/Enterprise Reporting at the 2009 SPJ Hawaii Excellence in Journalism Awards as part of a three-part series called Barack Obama’s Hawaii Roots:

Hawaii Helped Shape Barack Obama
Obama’s Hawaiian Getaway
Madelyn Dunham, Cornerstone of Barack Obama’s Life

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