VIDEO – In Praise of Kansas Grandmothers: RIP Madelyn Dunham, Barack Obama’s Grandma

Many good things come from my native Kansas, but without a doubt, one of the best is grandmothers.  To hear the news that Barack Obama’s grandmother Madelyn Dunham died, just hours before the grandson she helped raise could be elected President of the United States is heart-breaking and inspiring all at once.

Think of what her eyes and soul saw in her life.

Starting her life rooted in Augusta in the South Central part of Kansas at a time when women had few options, she raised her daughter Stanley Ann to be a woman of the world with great intelligence and compassion, and helped to raise her biracial grandson, Barack Obama. Obama has credited his grandmother as being the rock of the family, rising in her own career to become a bank vice president in Hawaii, and having served as many women did, during World War II on an assembly line as one of the famous "Rosey the Riveters".

In her life time many women were told they could not. She did. In her life time many people challenged inter-racial relationships. She embraced them. In her life time, which started just as women got the vote and long before blacks could vote freely, she saw barriers broken that many people said never should have been, never could have been, never would be. Some few still fight this "progress" today while most of us can’t believe how long it took, or that we still have to fight for equal rights.

Madelyn Dunham just lived, doing what Kansas grandmothers do, making a way, often against great odds. The Kansas state motto, Ad Astra Per Aspera, To the Stars Through Difficulty, is itself a guiding star befitting the strength of the pioneer women who settled the state, the abolitionist women who fought to keep it free, and their descendants, like Madelyn Dunham, who kept making her way against all odds. 

Through all our struggle America has grown stronger because of women like Madelyn Dunham, grandmothers rooted in the plains of Kansas, who didn’t pay any mind to what "others" thought "should" happen, and saw through visionary eyes to a world in which each individual has the ability to pursue their dreams. It didn’t matter to Madelyn Dunham that her children and grandchildren became famous, it mattered they could dream and had opportunity to live those dreams.

She made that possible for her family through her hard work, compassion and devotion to her family. She took care of herself, and others, and gave the world an amazing example of what family values are really all about.

I know a thing or two about wonderful grandmothers from Kansas, I had two myself, perhaps the best thing to have in common with Barack Obama.

May God bless and keep Madelyn Dunham as she watches over voting tomorrow from her new precinct above, and may the values she instilled in her family be a model to us all.


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  • invalid-0

    God Bless Barack, Michelle and the girls. And God Bless all grandmothers.

  • anna-clark

    I’m surprised at how surprised I am by the news of her death. And touched: I feel like the world owes this woman a great deal, for raising such a good man.


    Nice write-up about it all, Scott. Grandmothers are a wonderful thing. I think I’m going to call mine this week. Not from Kansas, but still pretty great.

  • scott-swenson

    Anna – thanks … yes grandmas from everywhere are pretty wonderful, I’m just partial to those from Kansas. This news really is poetic.

    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Editor