Obama at Occidental
The 44th President of the United States spoke softly when he was a student at Occidental College — who knewhe was going to end up carrying such a big stick?
By lyle james slack Tom Moyes remembers the first time he heard the name Barack Obama. It was in the fall of 2004, after theelectrifying speech Obama delivered at the 2004 Democratic Convention. That was the oration, of course,which introduced the young would-be Illinois Senator to America and inspired an instant following not only inthe U.S. but around the world.Moyes had missed the speech because he was on an extended vacation in New Zealand at the time. “So I pick up this newspaper,” says Moyes, who grew up in San Gabriel and graduated from Occidental College in EagleRock, “and it has this huge article about this guy Barack Obama. And it says he had gone to Occidental at thesame time I was there. And I said to myself, ‘There’s no way.’ I’d never heard the name Barack; I’m thinking itmust be a mistake.“So I call a friend I went to Oxy with, Ken Sulzer, and I say, ‘Ken, I’m down here in New Zealand and there’sthis article about some guy named Barack that went to college with us. Who is that?!’”“I said, ‘That’s Barry, man,’” says Sulzer, using the nickname Obama went by during his youth, “the guy withthe big afro who lived across the hall from me in the dorm.’ And Tom — he was just astounded. Because we allknew each other pretty well for that period of time. Those are pretty cramped quarters in Haines Hall, triples,three in a room, so you left your door open all the time and you spent a lot of time in the hallway just hangingout.”After he returned to the U.S., Moyes, now CFO for a TV advertising broker in San Diego, got out his Oxyyearbooks and searched for photos of Barry Obama, class of ’83.Occidental is a small liberal arts college with slightly more than 1,800 students, “so everyone’s in the yearbook,I mean everyone” he says, “But for those two years, there’s only one picture of him, and it’s this small shot of him at the back of the room
”These days, a lot of Barry Obama’s former classmates are wondering the same thing that flummoxed TomMoyes — how could they have crossed paths with the future President of the United States and not realized it,not had some inkling that the guy was destined for greatness?“If I’d known he was going to be president,” says Kent Goss, who shot a lot of hoop with Obama in the fall of ’79, “I’d have paid a lot more attention.”Obama’s near invisibility at Occidental may itself be the most telling point about the President elect from that period, the dawn of his intellectual coming of age. Americans are used to presidents who were consumed by political ambition in their youth, determined to become president first and content to figure out, almost as anafterthought, what they would do once they got the job. And yet Sulzer doesn’t remember that Obama was eveninterested in electoral politics at Occidental. Adds Moyes, “If you asked everyone at Oxy to rank the peoplewho might be president, he’d be the last. He’s the most regular guy I could imagine as president.”Obama reportedly chose Occidental to be near a girl he met in Hawaii; he transferred to Columbia University in1981, at the end of his sophomore year. If anything concrete can be said of his time there, it is that those wereyears when the future president was quietly beginning to figure out what he wanted to accomplish in his life.Kathy Cooper-Ledesma, now senior pastor of Hollywood United Methodist Church, was in Prof. Roger Boesche’s 19th-century political thought course with Obama, and she says what struck her then about Obama