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— who knew he 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 the electrifying 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 in the 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 Eagle Rock, “and it has this huge article about this guy Barack Obama. And it says he had gone to Occidental at the same time I was there. And I said to myself, ‘There’s no way.’ I’d never heard the name Barack; I’m thinking it must 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’s this 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 with the big afro who lived across the hall from me in the dorm.’ And Tom — he was just astounded. Because we all knew 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 hanging out.” After he returned to the U.S., Moyes, now CFO for a TV advertising broker in San Diego, got out his Oxy yearbooks 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 Tom Moyes — 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 an afterthought, what they would do once they got the job. And yet Sulzer doesn’t remember that Obama was even interested in electoral politics at Occidental. Adds Moyes, “If you asked everyone at Oxy to rank the people who 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 in 1981, at the end of his sophomore year. If anything concrete can be said of his time there, it is that those were years 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
was his methodical mind: “He would ask questions and just pursue an idea, a train of thought, really just for the sake of learning. Clearly, he so enjoyed talking about public policies and about ways to take what we were learning from Tocqueville and others and apply that today.” Sulzer, now a senior partner in the international law firm of Seyfarth Shaw, also took one of Boesche’s poli-sci classes with Obama; he remembers a time when they got all got a paper back in class: “Obama and I were walking back to the dorm and — listen, I was a year older and I thought I was a pretty smart guy — so I say, ‘I got an A, Barry, what’d you get?’ And he kind of wouldn’t tell me and just tried to change the subject in his low-key cool way. So I grabbed his paper out of his hand — and he’d gotten an A-plus. That’s when it hit me just how bright he was.” “I could add to that,” says John Boyer, Sulzer’s Occidental roommate and now a dermatological surgeon in Hawaii. “I was an all-American track athlete and pre-med, so I was working my tail off in school and studied hard, and I would usually be leaving the library around 11 at night. And I would see Barry coming in as I came out. I’d talk to him, and I could see that he was going to hunker down and do some work. One of those times, I went back to the room and told Ken, and Ken said, ‘Oh man, he hasn’t even started on that paper!’ “And that,” Boyer continues, “was the paper he got the A-plus on. I was just amazed, because he had pretty tough professors. But it was like with Beethoven — he had the music in his head; he just had to put it on paper.” Years later, Boyer worked on Capitol Hill in the Navy medical clinic that serves members of Congress. There he met many of the major political figures in the country, “and looking back on that now,” he says, “I realize Obama had all the qualities of those people. They’re wonderfully engaging people who are quick to find common ground with others. I think Obama, even at that point in college, had a naturally gifted skill set in terms of interacting with people and debating in a way that was not caustic.” Still, Boyer says his most vivid memory of the time he spent with Obama in dormitory bull sessions or going out for pizza at the tiny ’50s pizza parlor, Casa Bianca, is just how much they laughed together. “I would always laugh around him. He had just a great sense of humor, a very quick wit.” The laid-back Obama dropped off the map for most of those who knew him at Occidental until they saw him deliver his landmark speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. That was the moment they came face-to-face with the unexpected path he’d taken to accomplish the things he began thinking about 25 years earlier in Eagle Rock. Like millions of others, Kathy Cooper-Ledesma was impressed by the speech, but what impressed her even more, she says, was learning about the years Obama had spent as a community organizer. “Nobody becomes a community organizer as a route to the presidency,” she says. “But because of Roger Boesche’s and Tocqueville’s emphasis on community and America, I know that was [part] of Obama’s formative foundational understanding of political theory. And I know — because I did community organizing for a couple of years before I went to seminary — it’s such a noble profession, to really work with people who need a voice, who need to be heard.” http://www.verdugomonthly.com/article.php?id=382&IssueNum=32