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Occidental recalls 'Barry' Obama

The Eagle Rock liberal arts college is quick to claim the Illinois Democrat as an alum. He says he has 'fond memories' of the school.

January 29, 2007|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

Memories of 1980 at Occidental College's Haines Hall have the standard fragments of the era: stereos blasting the B-52's through the dorm, pot-fueled bull sessions about the revival of draft registration, late-night cramming for economics exams.

That otherwise private nostalgia took on public significance this month when a former Haines Hall resident from Hawaii known at the time as Barry announced that he was forming an exploratory committee to run for president of the United States.

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama is usually described as an alumnus of Columbia University, where he earned his bachelor's degree, and of Harvard Law School.

But the Illinois Democrat began his undergraduate education at Occidental, and the 1,825-student liberal arts college in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles isn't shy about claiming him as an alumnus for his two years there (1979-81) on full scholarship. Perhaps, some think, it's where his political and oratory skills were nurtured.

Despite the somewhat awkward facts that Obama transferred from Occidental and that his official website biography doesn't even mention the campus, old friends and former teachers at the well-regarded 120-year-old school proudly described him as a serious scholar and a good athlete who helped the JV Tigers basketball team to an undefeated season.

Though some express surprise at his current prominence, classmates recall a slim, good-looking teen with a moderate Afro, a taste for Casa Bianca's Hawaiian-style pizza (pineapple and ham) and a role in protesting college investments in firms doing business in South Africa during the apartheid era.

In his 1995 autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," Obama recounted how he was accepted into "several respectable" colleges but chose Occidental "mainly because I'd met a girl from Brentwood while she was vacationing in Hawaii."

On Friday, in an e-mailed response to questions from The Times, Obama said he had "fond memories" of Occidental. "It's a wonderful, small liberal arts college. The professors were diverse and inspiring. I ended up making some lifelong friendships there, and those first two years really helped me grow up."

Roger Boesche, a professor of politics who's cited as Obama's intellectual mentor at Occidental, said the young man from Honolulu was "a very thoughtful student and a very curious student."

Obama enrolled in two of Boesche's courses: a survey of American government and political thought from the Revolution through the civil rights movement and an advanced look at modern European political thought, which tackled such philosophers as Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Weber.

"You didn't take my European Modern class without wanting to think about deep ideas," said Boesche. Teacher and student later lost touch until Obama, then an Illinois state senator, ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004 and Boesche launched a warm e-mail correspondence.

Eric Newhall, a professor of American studies and American literature at Occidental, said Obama played with flair as a fiercely competitive guard in faculty-student pickup basketball games.

"I remember him clearly as better as an offensive player than a defense player," he said. Now Newhall likes to lightheartedly brag that he "scored a good number of baskets against the senator of Illinois. I would love to say I scored against the president."

On a more serious note, Newhall said Obama already showed glimpses of social conscience and what his supporters describe as his charisma. "Clearly the guy had a presence," he said.

"He came off as a serious, articulate, intelligent young guy," Newhall recalled. "I didn't say, 'Here is presidential timber,' but I said to myself, 'I like our student body because they are going out to do interesting things.' "

He and others recall a strong speech Obama made at a campus rally urging South Africa divestment. Obama, in his book, considered that a big moment: "I figured I was ready, and could reach people where it counted," he wrote. "I thought my voice wouldn't fail me." Still, Obama initially thought he had flopped.

Dorm neighbor Ken Sulzer, now a lawyer in Century City, remembers Haines Hall's loud soundtrack of New Wave bands like the Flying Lizards. Hallway debates tackled the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and President Carter's subsequent revival of draft registration.

Obama "did not impose his personality but certainly was well-respected among his peers and always had that great voice, even when he was 17, 18," Sulzer said.

In Boesche's European politics class, Sulzer said he was impressed at how few notes Obama took. "Where I had five pages, Barry had probably a paragraph of the pithiest, tightest prose you'd ever see.... It was very short, very sweet. Obviously somebody almost Clintonesque in being able to sum a whole lot of concepts and place them into a succinct written style."

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