Given all the election hoopla, you could be forgiven if you missed an important detail about Barack Obama’s successful
path to the presidency. No, i don’t mean his massive fundraising, or his compelling oratory about change. As you’ll learn from his Wikipedia page, though he graduated from Columbia University, he started his education with two years at Occidental College, a small liberal arts school in southern California. His earliest interest in public service developed during his two years there, 1979-1981. What you won’t learn from Wikipedia, though, is who else was there during those formative years: me.
That’s right, Barry (that’s what people called him back then) and i were classmates at Oxy (that’s what we alumni call Occidental), where i was a student from 1976-1980. I was a senior during his freshman year, and i was also around for his sophomore year (after graduating, i worked at Oxy for three additional years as a campus minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship).
Barry started out as a basketball player — something i was never any good at — but, as he said in a May 18 speech at Wesleyan University “I began to notice a world beyond myself … I became active in the movement to oppose the apartheid regime of South Africa” (citation). In 1977, just two years previously, i had withdrawn my funds from the local Bank of America in protest, after learning about divestment as an economic tool for fighting against apartheid. While little has been said publicly about my actions and their possible impact on Barry, do you think it’s just coincidence?
As a senior, i was putting in my best efforts as a student, but that wasn’t true initially for Barry. As detailed in a Newsweek story about his Occidental years, he met in the Cooler (an on-campus cafe that i frequented as well) with Roger Boesche, professor of politics, to complain about a poor grade. As Boesche reported to Newsweek:Â “I told him he was really smart, but he wasn’t working hard enough”.
Obama confirmed that he transferred to Columbia in 1981 partlyÂ â€œbecause Occidental was so small, I felt that I had gotten what I neededÂ out of it and the idea of being in New York was very appealing.â€Â But another reported reason was that he had many older friends whoÂ were graduating: like i had done, the previous year.
I can’t take credit for everything. For example, i started out as a diplomacy and world affairs major, but later changed to linguistics. Barry went the opposite direction: after leaving Oxy for Columbia, Barry decided to focus on political science. And it was his own idea to go from Barry back to Barack: as recorded in his autobiography, “It was when I made a conscious decision: I want to grow up.” And of course, much of what i knew about presidential politics came from an earlier model: Jack Kemp, Occidental class of ’57 and Republican vice-presidential nominee in 1996.
Like i always say, give credit where due.