to capture, preserve, and celebrate

President Obama's Kansas Heritage

Oral Histories

Knowing the Family

Oral history narrators who are relatives of President Obama or who knew the President's grandparents or other family members (the Payne or Dunham families).

  • Anna Margaret (née McCurry) Wolf (1935-2013 ) President Obama's third cousin, shares her childhood memories of President Obama's grandparents and playing with Stanley Ann, President Obama's mother.
  • Mary Frances (née Kennedy) Lawrence (1922-2012), friend of Madelyn Payne Dunham, President Obama's maternal grandmother, shares her personal memories of Madelyn and growing up in Augusta, Kansas.
  • Virginia (née Dashner) Ewalt (1924- ) was a classmate of Madelyn (Payne) Dunham, Augusta High School class of 1940. She recalls events from their high school years and how the war and gas rationing in the 1940's impacted everyday life in Augusta...taking the train to Wichita, the bus to El Dorado, and a civil service job that paid 35 cents an hour.
  • Nina June (née Swan) Parry (1923-2012) and Nelva (née Seaburn) Wentz (1923- ) recount growing up in Augusta, life during World War II, and their friendship with President Obama's grandmother, Madelyn (Payne) Dunham.
  • Lois (née Olsen) Cox (1924- ) recalls growing up on a farm outside Augusta, KS and events from her years at Augusta High School. She shares her surprise at finding a note written by Madelyn (Payne) Dunham in her autograph book that she sent to the White House, and the personal letter of thanks she received from President Obama.
  • Raymond J. Teegarden (1922-2014) walked to school with Madelyn (née Payne) Dunham, who also sometimes informally tutored him. He was also on the Augusta High School football team, and in this oral history, he tells a compelling story about the team’s spontaneous protest against a cafe that refused to serve their fellow teammate, who happened to be the only African American on the team.
  • Margaret (née Lewis) Shirk (1917-   ) tells the story of her husband, David Lee Shirk (1915-2009) who lived with his family in a boxcar during the Depression. The El Dorado Rotary Club loaned him $60 to attend the University of Kansas. He saved the receipt for repayment of the interest-free loan all his life, and his wife established a scholarship fund in his memory. The couple spent a day with David’s high school classmate, Stanley Dunham, in Hawaii. Margaret remembers Stanley bragging on his grandson, who he predicted would go far in life.
  • Esther (née Gonzales) Mayes (1924-   ) was two years behind Madelyn Payne at Augusta High School, and remembers her, but knew Arlene and Charles, her younger siblings, better. Her parents emigrated from Mexico in 1914, and her family was one of the minority families living in Augusta when she grew up. She shares some memories from that perspective, and memories about two of her brothers who saw action and died during World War II, one of whom received the Silver Star.

Featured Clip

Anna Margaret (McCurry) Wolf explains her family relationship to President Obama and shares her memories of President Obama's grandparents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham, his great-grandparents, Rolla and Leona Payne, and her excitement in meeting President Obama.

Length: 05:02

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Featured Clip

Mary Frances (Kennedy) Lawrence shares personal memories of her friend, Madelyn (Payne) Dunham, President Obama's maternal grandmother.

Length: 5:36

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Butler County & South Central Kansas

Oral history narrators with rich memories and historical knowledge about growing up in Butler County and living in South Central Kansas.

  • Bill D. Dennett (1921- ) shares stories about a one-room schoolhouse in Gordon, attending Augusta High School in the late 1930's, his time in the service during World War II, and working on the railroad.
  • Clarence H. Kerns (1917-2014 ) class historian of 1936, shares his memories from El Dorado High School, President Obama's grandparents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham, and other fascinating local history about life in El Dorado and Butler County.
  • Forrest J. Robinson (1923-2012), the pastor of President Obama's great-grandparents, Rolla and Leona Payne, late in their lives, shares his experiences of living in south central Kansas, and his World War II memories.
  • Clifford W. Stone (1918-2010), leading citizen and philanthropist with deep roots in Butler County, shares his memories. His family has graciously agreed to share his oral history for the sole purpose of helping school children, as well as people of all ages, honor the rich history and legacies of Mr. Stone and others associated with the development of Butler County and surrounding area.

Featured Clip

Clarence H. Kerns shares a letter from President Obama's grandparents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham.

Length: 02:17

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Featured Clip

Forrest J. Robinson shares his recollections of President Obama's great-grandparents, Rolla and Leona Payne in Winfield, Kansas.

Length: 03:53

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Culture & Times

Oral history narrators with rich memories and historical knowledge of the culture during the first half of the twentieth century, and specifically the 1920's and 1930's.

  • Caroline (née Ewing) Short (1918-2010) remembers growing up in the 1920's and 1930's and shares a glimpse of the culture and times from a female perspective.
  • Margaret (née Haines) Doornbos (1918- ) El Dorado High School graduate of 1936, shares memories about high school and the dust storms of the “dirty thirties.”
  • Christine (née Henry) Snyder (1923-   ) was a year behind Madelyn in school, and being from the country south of Augusta, did not attend school in Augusta until high school, so she does not recall having personally known Madelyn, though she remembers knowing who she was when they were in high school.
  • Berry Harris (1929-) was born in Chockie, Oklahoma, and has played the blues for over 70 years, in just about every club in Wichita. Berry recollects the many experiences his guitar has brought him. Among music fans he met were three white women from Augusta, who frequented his club and his neighborhood in the 1950s.

Featured Clip

Margaret (Haines) Doornbos, 1936 graduate of El Dorado High School, shares memories about high school and the dust storms of the “dirty thirties.”

Length: 3:01

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About the Oral Histories

We feel privileged to have heard our narrators’ stories, including, where possible, memories of President Obama’s maternal grandparents and other relatives. We think of these interviews as conversations with neighbors, and hope we have accurately portrayed the times they have remembered with us. We also hope that anyone who experiences these oral histories is able to see those times through their eyes.

The group’s first goal is “to capture, preserve, and celebrate President Obama’s Kansas heritage, sense of family, and Midwestern values.” Recognizing that a heritage is larger than one’s own family, oral history narrators are selected using a broader set of criteria than intimate knowledge of the President’s ancestors, seeking to preserve the rich history of the people of greater Butler County in the first half of the twentieth century.

Some narrators came to campus to be interviewed; other histories were collected in the narrators’ homes. Invaluable in describing the oral histories for editing, production, cataloging, and analysis is the work of committee member Marie Gillespie.

Kansas Heritage Fourth Grade Oral History Project

Funded by a “Celebrate Kansas/Serve Kansas” minigrant from Kansas Campus Compact, the Butler Community College Service-Learning Office initiated the Kansas Heritage Fourth Grade Oral History Project in November, 2009. In this intergenerational project, college students helped area fourth graders record oral history videos with their elders about their Kansas experiences. The fourth graders met state benchmarks for historical thinking skills through hands-on experience with primary research. A composite video documentary using excerpts from the individual histories was screened at a Kansas Day Celebration (2010) for all participants, their families and classmates. Sample forms to create simple oral history kits are also posted in Educational Tools.