JACKSONVILLE, Fla. | Sen. Barack Obama‘s grandmother, who helped raise the Democratic presidential candidate, died Sunday, less than 48 hours before the election.
Madelyn Payne Dunham, who turned 86 last week, battled cancer and had suffered a broken hip. Mr. Obama, who frequently mentions her accomplishments and her work building bombers in World War II, told voters on his final day of campaigning he views his beloved “Toot” as a “quiet hero.”
Mr. Obama and his sister Maya Soetoro-Ng issued a statement that Mrs. Dunham died peacefully in her home late Sunday night. He learned the news Monday morning.
“She was the cornerstone of our family, and a woman of extraordinary accomplishment, strength, and humility. She was the person who encouraged and allowed us to take chances,” the statement said. “She was proud of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and left this world with the knowledge that her impact on all of us was meaningful and enduring. Our debt to her is beyond measure.”
They expressed thanks for the outpouring of support shown to Mrs. Dunham, who helped raise Mr. Obama. His mother died of cancer when he was a young man and he never lived with his Kenyan father.
They said in the statement the family will hold a small, private ceremony at a later date to respect their grandmother’s wishes and asked for donations to organizations searching for cancer cures in lieu of flowers.
Last month Mr. Obama broke from the campaign trail to spend 24 hours at her side in Hawaii, and he has acknowledged the family was not certain she would make it to the election. She cast her ballot for her grandson during early absentee voting.
The candidate learned of his grandmother’s death at about 8 a.m. Monday before a Jacksonville rally, but did not mention it in his campaign speech.
Later at a rally in Charlotte, N.C., Mr. Obama seemed to tear up as he said it was a “bittersweet time.” He told the crowd the news.
“She has gone home. She died peacefully in her sleep, with my sister at her side and so there’s great joy as well as tears. I’m not going to talk about it too long, because it’s hard to talk about,” he said.
Mrs. Dunham was like other “quiet heroes that we have all across America,” he said, pledging to fight for others like her if elected.
Before the rally he stopped at a campaign headquarters in Charlotte and mentioned his grandmother while speaking to a voter on a phone call.
He was speaking about health care issues and spoke about home care, saying, “My grandmother was able to stay in a home all the way until recently. Because she just had someone who could come in once and a while … and that ends up saving a lot more money. Not only does it end up saving money for the state but … it’s a lot better for people like yourself and my grandmother.”
He turned away from the reporters following him, and a pool report described him as looking “sad and tired,” though he continued with his phone calls.
Before he left the phone bank center, Mr. Obama told the volunteers, “I hope you guys feel like you’ve been making a little bit of history here. If we take North Carolina, we win this election.”
Mrs. Dunham, his maternal grandmother nicknamed “Toot” who still lived in the same Honolulu apartment, was closely following the race. She did not speak to anyone about her grandson during his presidential campaign, even as she sometimes was mentioned on the campaign trail.
Mr. Obama, who is half-white from his mother’s side, used Mrs. Dunham as an example in a speech about race relations in America. He also wrote about her extensively in his autobiography, “Dreams from my Father.”
The book included stories chronicling Mr. Obama’s journey to understand his mixed race heritage.
Mr. Obama’s Republican rival Sen. John McCain offered a statement in sympathy.
“We offer our deepest condolences to Barack Obama and his family as they grieve the loss of their beloved grandmother. Our thoughts and prayers go out to them as they remember and celebrate the life of someone who had such a profound impact in their lives,” Mr. McCain and his wife Cindy McCain said.