Obama's alma mater celebrates his inauguration
BY VERENA DOBNIK Associated Press
Sunday, January 18, 2009
NEW YORK — Columbia University is throwing a campus party to celebrate the inauguration of its first graduate to become president: Barack Obama, Class of '83.
"So you can't make it to D.C.?" reads an e-mail invitation from university president Lee C. Bollinger to alumni. "Come celebrate Obama's inauguration with the Columbia community."
Just inside the university's iron entrance gates, a framed poster of a smiling Obama looks onto a plaza where a giant television screen will be set up for the broadcast of Tuesday's ceremony in Washington, barring extreme weather. Hot chocolate and warm cider will be served.
"He's everywhere! This semester has been completely Obama," said junior Anna Brauer, vice president of Columbia's Democratic club.
"Happy days are here again!" reads a flier tacked to the window of a pub near campus. "Celebrate President Obama '83."
Obama attended the university's Columbia College from 1981 to 1983, the last two years of his undergraduate studies, majoring in political science with a specialization in international relations.
Now, the school is basking in his reflected glory — as other schools that educated future presidents have done, including California's Whittier College, the alma mater of Richard Nixon.
It's not Columbia's first brush with men who would be president: Dwight Eisenhower led the institution from 1948 until he took leave in December 1950 to command the new NATO forces. Both Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt attended its law school, though neither graduated.
There are no plans yet for plaques or statues dedicated to Obama on the upper Manhattan campus. "We'll wait to see how he does," Bollinger said.
A half dozen blocks south of the campus, the future president shared a walkup apartment with Phil Boerner, who transferred to the Ivy League school with Obama from Occidental College in Los Angeles.
When Obama showed up at the door with his luggage late one night in August 1981, no one answered. He ended up sleeping in an alley next to the apartment building — an episode he recounted in "Dreams from my Father."
"I found a dry spot, propped my luggage beneath me and fell asleep, the sound of drums softly shaping my dreams," he wrote in the autobiographical book. "I woke up to find a white hen pecking at the garbage near my feet."
That winter, the apartment was often so cold — or impossibly hot — that he and Boerner took refuge in the college's well-heated Butler Library, which looks on the plaza where Tuesday's inauguration gathering will be held.
"He wasn't thinking about becoming president when he was in college. He wanted to be a writer," Boerner wrote in an article for the current issue of the magazine Columbia College Today.
Though Obama hasn't spoken or written much about his New York years, Bollinger said Obama told him that his education at Columbia meant a great deal to him.
"In addition to his political skills, Obama embodies the belief that there is a direct link between a deep intellectual commitment and a great political life and work," said Bollinger, who plans to watch the live ceremony at the campus plaza with other members of the Columbia community.
After graduation, Obama worked for a year in New York, moving to Chicago in 1984.
Boerner, now a spokesman for the California Veterinary Medical Association based in Sacramento, Calif., has stayed in touch with the president-elect.
Obama, Boerner wrote in the college magazine, "is a good man — some might even call him a saint for tolerating my beginning banjo playing." He also writes that Obama once cooked them chicken curry.
Obama was too busy campaigning to attend the 25th reunion of his graduating class last May. Instead, he sent a letter to fellow alumni:
"Twenty-five years ago, we left Columbia with the wind at our backs. But in spite of our successes, many in our nation have not shared in the prosperity of the last quarter-century, and some are worse off than before. We must continually be reminded of the work that remains to protect our union and repair our world."
In this personal photo combo released by Phil Boerner is shown Boerner, right, and his college roommate, Barack Obama, in their New York City apartment in the early 1980s. Boerner made the photo of Obama and Obama made Boerner's photo. When Obama takes the oath of office on Tuesday the university that helped shape his ideas will celebrate him at an outdoors rally marking the inauguration of Columbia University's first graduate to become president. AP