Feb. 11 (Bloomberg) -- Barack Obama's mother was most at home a world away from her Midwest roots, trekking the old Silk Road or arranging small loans for weavers in Indonesia.
``I'm so tired of seeing her described as just a white woman from Kansas,'' says Bronwen Solyom, 63, who first met Ann Dunham in the 1970s when they were graduate students in anthropology at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. ``She was much more than that.''
Her son, who may become the first black U.S. president, displays a penchant for defying convention and forging his own path that those who knew Dunham well trace back to her arrival with her family in Hawaii after high school. Although the son has channeled the rebelliousness of his early years, he remains impatient with customs, such as the political dictate that he should wait his turn for national office.
``She certainly gave us her open-mindedness and our desire to challenge ourselves with new vistas and perceptions,'' says Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama's half-sister from Dunham's second marriage to an Indonesian businessman.
The influence of Stanley Ann Dunham -- named after a father eager to pass on his name -- ``is very, very deep,'' says U.S. Representative Neil Abercrombie, a Hawaii Democrat who attended university with Dunham and Obama's father, a Kenyan graduate student who was the son of a goatherd. Obama's ``eclectic views of the world are a direct reflection of his mother.''
Terance Bigalke, who worked with Dunham at the Ford Foundation in Jakarta, says she also fostered social activism in her children through her work on behalf of the world's poor.
``She had such a strong concern for people who were in difficult circumstances economically,'' says Bigalke, 59. That concern led her to study the underground economy of Jakarta street vendors.
Obama himself, in a 2004 preface to a new edition of his best-selling memoir, ``Dreams From My Father,'' described his bond with his mother, who died of cancer in 1995 at age 52. ``What is best in me I owe to her,'' wrote Obama, now a 46-year- old Democratic senator from Illinois.
Dunham was born in 1942 in the American heartland and spent her teen years near Seattle. In 1960, she began college in Honolulu at a time when a multicultural student body, Hawaii's recent statehood, a burgeoning civil-rights movement and, soon, the looming Vietnam War made for a heady atmosphere on campus.
She and Obama wed later that same year, a highly unusual act at a time when interracial marriage was illegal in many U.S. states.
``This was a young girl in 1960 married not just to a black man, but to an African,'' Abercrombie says. Dunham, he says, was ``very, very self-contained but with a little burning flame in there.'' It never occurred to her that ``she couldn't go and try anything.''
StepDad Lolo, Mother Ann & half sister Maya
After her breakup with Obama, Dunham met and eventually married an Indonesian graduate student named Lolo Soetoro. In 1967, when Soetoro's student visa was revoked because of political unrest in Indonesia, Dunham and Barack, then in first grade, accompanied him to Jakarta.
The move sparked a lifelong passion that later led Dunham to return to Hawaii for graduate studies in anthropology and an 800-page Ph.D. thesis on Indonesian blacksmithing.
Her interest in the local culture was aroused almost immediately, when she started teaching English to Indonesians. Meanwhile, her husband was growing more and more Westernized through his work for a U.S.-based oil company.
``They were simply developing into different people: He was becoming an American oil type and she was becoming a Javanese weaver,'' says Alice Dewey, 79, an anthropologist who knew Dunham in Indonesia and Hawaii. Dunham came to dread oil- company-employee get-togethers in which golf scores would be announced.
``Ann saw first of all that he was so bright that he needed to come and really be challenged by a good school,'' says Benji Bennington, 73, the retired curator of the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii. Dunham also hoped that ``maybe he'd meet a few blacks while here, because he was not meeting them in Jakarta.''
The family was reunited about a year later when Dunham separated from Soetoro and returned to Honolulu for graduate school. Obama began to take on a caretaking role for the family, says his half-sister Maya, 37, a teacher in Honolulu.
When Dunham moved back to Jakarta for her anthropology field work, Barack saw his mother and half-sister only for Christmas and summer break.
Friends say Dunham found her calling through her work, which evolved from studying batik and ironwork to obtaining microfinancing for craftspeople, especially women, in rural areas of developing countries.
``She was a scholar who was one of the first to see about microbanking,'' Abercrombie says.
In 1986, Dunham did a one-year development project in Pakistan. That year, mother and daughter took a two-week journey along the old Silk Route to China.
Dunham's work for the Agricultural Development Bank of Pakistan was followed by stints at People's Bank of Indonesia and Women's World Banking in New York. She also did consulting work for the World Bank and USAID.
``She was getting to pretty high-powered positions, working in world organizations as an expert, but she always liked the people at the bottom,'' says Dewey, the granddaughter of the philosopher John Dewey.
In her 40s, Dunham talked about adopting a baby. ``She loved kids, and we were taking too long making her a grandmother,'' says Maya, noting that her mother never got to meet any of her grandchildren.
After seeing a news report about the offspring of children in Korea born to African-American soldiers, she decided that would be the perfect addition to her multiethnic family, Dewey says. Dunham was ``very specific about what she wanted,'' Maya says.
Instead, Dunham found herself battling both ovarian and uterine cancer. Until her death, she displayed the unflappable temperament that she passed on to Obama, Dewey says.
``She took it in stride,'' she says. ``She didn't fuss about it.''
Dunham would have delighted in her son's ascent to the highest reaches of U.S. politics, Dewey says.
``It's too bad she's not here,'' she says. ``She'd be saying, with a little chuckle, `Here's one of our own' and `He's going to show them.'''
To contact the reporter on this story: Kim Chipman in Hawaii at email@example.com .
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