We’ll try not to make too much about it, but the basic fact is undeniable:
A 1958 article from The Saturday Evening Post is responsible for President Barack Obama’s father coming to the United States. If it hadn’t been for this article, Obama’s father might never have come to this country; he certainly wouldn’t have met his American wife; and his son—our president—would never have been born.
What was so special about this magazine article?
Not so much on the face of it. It was a travel story about Hawaii. It began as just another assignment for Frank J. Taylor—one of 82 articles he wrote for the Post. His idea was to cover the 50th anniversary of the University of Hawaii, and get some vacation time in his beloved Hawaii.
As David Maraniss points out in his book Barack Obama: The Story (Simon and Schuster, 2012), Editor Ben Hibbs approved the story. “I think it will make a rather unusual education piece for us,” he told Taylor.
“Colorful Campus of the Islands” appeared in the May 24, 1958, issue. [Read the full story here.] Over 5 million copies of the issue were printed. One of them found its way to Nairobi, Africa, where it landed in the library at the Kenya Adult Literacy Program.
Betty Mooney, who ran the library, read the article and passed it along to a Kenyan student, Barack Obama, the father of the man who would become the future president. She knew Obama was interested in studying in America, but was worried about racial unrest in the states. The University of Hawaii, as described by Taylor, seemed an ideal alternative.
From his first paragraph, Taylor emphasized the multicultural atmosphere the University nurtured. Following is an excerpt:
The physical setting itself is picturesque enough, but what really sets the University of Hawaii apart is the multi-racial make-up of its student body.
Because the undergraduates come from so many different racial strains, new students were for some years asked on the entrance blank to indicate their ethnic background—Polynesian (Hawaiian or otherwise), Caucasian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Filipino.
Every so often, however, a card would turn up on which a student had checked not one, but perhaps four or five of the races named. At first the registrar suspected undergraduate levity, but upon making cautious inquiry, he discovered it was nothing of the kind. Some students were indeed a blend of several races.
The university rose to the occasion. It added a new race, Cosmopolitan, and stopped keeping records of racial background.
The students, however, found the idea of a seventh race much too good to pass up, and the Cosmopolitan category is perpetuated in an annual … beauty contest staged by the editors of the student yearbook.
As the happy Hawaiians see it, only a campus insensible to the finer things of life would settle for a single beauty queen when there’s a perfectly good excuse to have seven of them in a row.
Accordingly, the … contest elects a separate queen for each of the seven different racial groups.
These campus-queen contests … on what is known locally as the Rainbow Campus, help point up the fact that the university’s 6,700 day students, plus 7,000 adults in night classes, in effect, bridge the Pacific racially.
The University had also been successful in building a diverse faculty.
By creating what Doctor Wilson calls “an atmosphere of intellectual ferment,” they have been able to attract faculty members from ninety-nine mainland colleges and universities and from eight foreign lands.
Taylor conceded that many students from mainland America came to U of H expecting lightweight courses like “suntan and hula dancing.”
“You can spot them the first day, because they show up in the brightest clothing on the campus,” a university staffer explained. “But they soon find out they have to dig into the books to keep pace with the islanders and the Asiatics who are here to study.”
These latter students proved to be intent on their studies.
Indeed, the university’s students are such dedicated scholars that the faculty worries about them and conspires to divert them from book learning now and then.”In mainland colleges, you’re always putting the brakes on student exuberance,” explained Susan Daniels, the lively New Englander who supervises student activities. “Out here it’s just the opposite. It is such a cherished privilege to have an education that these young people have to be prodded into having fun.”
Obama, Sr., was duly impressed. A magazine article had pointed to a unique educational opportunity. He enrolled at the University of Hawaii in 1959. In 1960, he met Stanley Ann Dunham. They married in 1961. Their son, Barack Obama II, was born in Honolulu in 1961 and, 47 years later, was sworn in as the 44th president.
We’re all aware that the Post is an influential magazine. But sometimes the magnitude of its influence stuns even those of us who work here!