Twenty years ago Barack Obama was a law student at Harvard. He had been working as a community organizer in Chicago so his finances must have been somewhat modest. According to an article by Siril Herseth in the Norwegian online news source VG Nett, at that time Obama was traveling through the Miami airport. In the check-in line he was standing behind a woman who was crying.
Mary Menth Andersen was in the process of moving to Norway to join her new husband. She had culled her possessions to two suitcases and had just been told that she would have to pay a $103 surcharge to bring both suitcases with her. Since her husband was already in Norway, he could not help her, and she did not have enough money to pay the surcharge.
Mary explained the situation to the agent, but he could not help her. She recounts:
I started to cry, tears were pouring down my face and I had no idea what to do. Then I heard a gentle and friendly voice behind me saying, ‘That’s OK, I’ll pay for her.’
It was Barack Obama. She was thrilled and thanked him repeatedly, vowing to pay the money back. He paid the fee, wrote his name and address (in Kansas) on a piece of paper, and waved to her as she headed for security. She sent money to the address the day after she arrived in Norway.
Mary’s parents live in the United States. In 2006, when Obama was serving as a US Senator, they wrote to him, thanking him for helping their daughter and vowing to vote for him if he decided to run for the Presidency. Senator Obama replied to the letter with this note on his Senate stationary:
I want to thank you for the lovely things you wrote about me and for reminding me of what happened at Miami airport. I’m happy I could help back then, and I’m delighted to hear that your daughter is happy in Norway. Please send her my best wishes.
Barack Obama, United States Senator
This is probably not an unusual story. People are routinely generous to each other and spontaneously step in to help other people who are in distress. Click on Stories in the left navigation bar of this blog to see some graceful examples of these. What is unusual about this story is that the generous student went on to become our current US President.
- Obama voluntarily stepped into a private interaction to help a stranger
- He cheerfully trusted her with his financial resources
- He was gracious in acknowledging Mary’s parent’s letter, taking his time to write a personal note and even thanking them
With figures as public as the US President or a US Senator, every action is recorded, scrutinized, and judged. In addition, the protections, comforts, and resources that accompany powerful position like these may make it easier to be gracious and generous. However, this was Barack Obama when he was an unknown and unobserved private citizen, not surrounded with protection, and with far more modest resources. It may or may not say something about his character, but it certainly says something positive about his empathetic reactions. I am greatly cheered by this story; it fuels my optimism for how he may react to people’s needs right now in the USA and all through his Presidency.