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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

John Boyer, a skin cancer surgeon in Honolulu, fondly recalled evenings driving around L.A. and sharing pizza near campus. Boyer described himself as conservative politically and opposed to some of Obama's positions, but added, "What I admired about him then and now is that he is a very principled person in how he formulated his views."

A woman who knew Obama at Occidental but did not want to be identified said she remains surprised that "Barry" might run for president. "It was just different times then. People sat around and smoked dope and talked about how they would reform the world. But you never thought they would," she said.

Although college friends would not discuss his drug use, Obama has publicly said he smoked marijuana and tried cocaine in high school and college.

Obama, now 45, came to Occidental's lushly landscaped campus after graduating from the Punahou School, a prestigious private academy in Hawaii. The son of a white American woman and a black Kenyan father who had been an exchange student at the University of Hawaii, he spent some of his childhood in Indonesia, where a stepfather lived.

Obama wrote about his search for a racial identity and said he often hung out with other black students at Occidental but also "the foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets ... When we ground out our cigarettes in the hallway carpet or set our stereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting bourgeois society's stifling constraints."

Today, blacks and Latinos comprise about 22% of the student body, more than double what it was in Obama's time.

Anne Howells, a retired English professor, said she wrote Obama a recommendation for his Columbia transfer -- even though he sometimes turned in assignments late.

"He wanted a bigger school and the experience of Manhattan," she said. "I thought it was a good move for him."

In his e-mail, Obama confirmed that he transferred partly "because Occidental was so small, I felt that I had gotten what I needed out of it and the idea of being in New York was very appealing." But another reason was that he had many older friends who were graduating. College spokesman Jim Tranquada said privacy rules forbid releasing grades, but that Obama left in good standing.

So can Occidental legitimately claim him as an alumnus? "By all means," said Jim Jacobs, alumni relations director. "Who wouldn't want to claim him as an alum?" Many colleges list anyone who has studied on campus for at least a year, he said.

Obama, in his e-mail, said he is "happy to be an honorary alumnus, though my loyalties are obviously divided with Columbia, where I had a wonderful time as well."

Occidental already is linked to presidential politics through Jack Kemp, class of 1957. The former pro quarterback and Republican congressman ran for president in 1988 and was a vice presidential candidate in 1996.

Current students are aware that Obama once was one of them, said senior Rachel Kay, a coordinator of Haines Hall, where he lived as a freshman.

"I don't think they are more in favor of him because he went here," Kay said. "But to have some connection is cool."


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