Madelyn Payne Dunham, the maternal grandmother of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, died Monday at the age of 86 after a battle with cancer, his campaign announced Monday. The Illinois senator has called his grandmother one of the "cornerstones" of his life.
In a statement released with his sister Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama called his grandmother "a woman of extraordinary accomplishment, strength, and humility. She was the person who encouraged and allowed us to take chances."
Dunham had been too ill to appear with her grandson on the campaign trail, but he spoke of her often, particularly at crucial moments in his political career.
"Tonight, I can stand here and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for the president of the United States of America," Obama said in June after securing enough delegates to clinch the nomination. But on that historic night this past summer, he paused before his prepared speech to acknowledge his grandmother.
"Thank you to my grandmother who helped raise me, and is sitting in Hawaii somewhere right now because she can't travel, but who poured everything she had into me, and who helped to make me the man I am today. ... Tonight is for her," Obama said.
Obama also discussed Dunham in his March speech about race, in which he talked about growing up in a mixed-race household. The speech was a response to controversy over racial remarks made by Obama's former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
"I can no more disown him," Obama said, "than I can disown my white grandmother, a woman who helped raise me. A woman who sacrificed again and again for me. A woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world. But a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who pass her on the street, and who, on more than one occasion, has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are part of me."
The son of a Kenyan man and a white woman from Kansas, Obama was born in Hawaii. When he was 11, his mother, Ann Dunham, sent him to Honolulu, where Obama spent years living in a two-bedroom apartment with his grandmother and grandfather, Stanley Dunham.
During World War II, Madelyn Dunham worked on a bomber assembly line. After the war, she worked her way up to vice president at a local bank in Hawaii.
With just two weeks to go before the presidential election, Obama left the campaign trail to visit Dunham in Honolulu. She had recently broken her hip, and Obama told ABC that visiting her was important to him.
"One of the things I wanted to make sure of is that I had a chance to sit down with her and talk to her," he said. "She's still alert and she's still got all her faculties, and I want to make sure that I don't miss that opportunity right now."
Obama has said the biggest regret of his life was not making it to his mother's bedside before she died in 1995. He has said he wouldn't make that mistake again. Michelle Obama explained her husband's absence from the campaign trail during his visit with "Toot" – Obama's name for his grandma (short for "Tutu," which is a local term for "grandmother"). The candidate's wife talked about Dunham's importance to him and his family.
"He said, 'You know, I got my toughness from Toot,' 'cause she taught him with her quiet confidence and love and support that he could do anything," Michelle Obama said. "Just deep love and admiration."
In a rare 2004 interview with The Chicago Tribune, Dunham said she supposed she had provided some stability in Obama's life. In their joint statement Monday, Obama and his sister said, "Our debt to her is beyond measure."