Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama baby sitter awaits new era — Soldotna woman eager for former charge’s reign

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

On Tuesday, supporters of President-elect Barack Obama looked forward to watching him take the oath of office with a sense of excitement, pride and hope for the future. Mary Toutonghi, of Soldotna, was prepared for that and another sensation: Remembrance of the 44th president as a 7-month-old baby.

Toutonghi used to baby-sit President Obama when she was neighbors with his mother.

Toutonghi was living in Seattle at the time, in the early 1960s. Her husband was going to school at Seattle University, and she was a stay-at-home mom with their 18-month-old daughter.

They lived in a three-story house that had been converted into three inexpensive apartments. Toutonghi and her family lived in the basement apartment, and Ann Dunham — Obama’s mother — lived in the apartment directly upstairs.

Dunham attended night classes a few days a week at the University of Washington, and needed someone to take care of her son.

“The time was available and we were all struggling students. She needed a baby sitter and I said ‘Sure,’” Toutonghi said.

She watched Obama a few times a week, for about three hours at a time. Dunham paid her, but she doesn’t remember how much, Toutonghi said.

“I remember his being very large and very curious and very alert. I don’t remember him fussing, but that doesn’t mean anything. Saying he never fussed is like saying he’s not real. But I don’t remember any undue fussing at all,” she said.

Being a struggling young mother herself, in the tumultuous dawning of the 1960s, no less, Toutonghi said she doesn’t remember many specifics about Dunham.

“I was so engrossed in myself at the time,” she said.

But the circumstances of a young mother living, attending school and raising a baby alone stuck in Toutonghi’s mind.

“It was a tough situation, as far as I knew,” she said. “She was 19, she’d promised her parents that she was going to finish college, even through she’d married. I’m presuming her parents were paying for the schooling — nobody had any money at the time.”

Dunham met Barack Obama Sr., a foreign student from Nyang’oma Kogelo in Kenya, Africa, when she was a freshman at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. They married on Feb. 2, 1961, and Barack Obama II was born Aug. 4, 1961, when Dunham was 18.

Dunham left school to take care of the baby, and returned to Seattle while Obama Sr. finished college in Hawaii and left for graduate school at Harvard University.

“It was interesting, and I don’t know why she was going to school in Seattle and he was in Hawaii at the time. She had told me at one point that because of her husband’s post in the tribe he was going to have to go back to Kenya and marry a black woman, as well. It was a whole different world, so she was accepting of that and hoping she could get back to him soon,” Toutonghi said.

Later, Dunham moved back to Hawaii with her son and filed for divorce from Obama Sr. in 1964.

By that time, Toutonghi had long since moved on to the next chapter in her life. She baby-sat for Dunham for two months, then she and her husband bought a house in the Government Hill section of Seattle and moved there, before moving to Alaska in 1977. She had a long career as a speech pathologist. She’s retired from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and has a private clinic in Soldotna.

She didn’t have cause to think about her former charge until 2004, when she came across his first book, “Dreams from My Father.” Then she saw he was the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

“Since I found the book, ‘Dreams from My Father,’ when it was first published, then when I was working on the 2004 presidential campaign and realized he was the convention speaker, it blew me away. And then this,” she said.

“I keep thinking of the six degrees of separation, that thing. I’ve known some unusual people in my time, but this was different.”

Toutonghi said she went to school in California with Bob Hope’s kids.

“We were in the neighborhood, essentially. I was not one of the elite group members, by any means, but I remember getting an award once with he and Dorothy in the audience,” she said.
As famous-people stories go, that’s noteworthy. But nowhere near as much as having changed the future president’s diapers.

“It was just mind-boggling to me when he did that Democratic convention, and then was like, ‘Huh,’” she said.

Toutonghi said she often wondered what happened to Dunham, who became Ann Dunham Soetoro after a later marriage, and died of ovarian cancer in 1995.

“We talked, but I can’t say, if I had been really strong friends I would have kept up the relationship. It was interesting to me as I read that book, his first book, I was thinking of his mother, then finding out she had died I felt very badly. I had meant to try to contact her through the publisher, but I didn’t get around to it. It was one of those things,” she said.

Toutonghi said her daughter asked if she had voted for President Obama because she had once baby-sat him.

“I said no. I felt that he had a concern for people as a whole,” she said. “As I thought of the books and things I had read about him and what I knew of that period of time, I think he was very aware of ordinary people and people who were trying really hard to make it. His mother definitely had spoke in terms of concern for people, and I just had the feeling that he must have carried some of that through, and it seems to be turning out that way. I listened to some of the speeches he had made today and he has an awareness of what it’s like to struggle to achieve something.”

She was looking forward to seeing President Obama take office, and not just for the thrill of 40 years-removed fame.

“I just think we’ve been through eight years of hell,” Toutonghi said, referring to the war in Iraq, mounting national debt and the country’s downward spiral into economic recession during President Bush’s administration.

She’s hoping the alert, inquisitive boy she once took care of now takes care of the country.

“I think he’s got a horrible job ahead of him, but he seems to be taking it in stride,” she said.


Dondi said...

Mary Toutonghi, of Soldotna, was prepared for that and another sensation: ... Africa, when she was a freshman at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. ...

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