Barack Obama’s great-uncle dies at 89; Charles Payne was WWII vet, U. of C. library official

Written By BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL AND JON SEIDEL Staff Reporters Posted: 08/12/2014, 09:56am
Array President Barack Obama embraces his great uncle Charles Payne following the President's speech at the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in Normandy, France, June 6, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama’s “Uncle Charlie” has died.

Charles T. Payne, 89, died Aug. 1 in Chicago, where he worked as a pioneer in library information technology at the University of Chicago.

He was the brother of “Toot,” Madelyn Payne Dunham, the maternal grandmother who helped raise Obama — and who died one day before he was elected president.

The president spoke recently with his great-uncle, a White House official said Monday evening. “Uncle Charlie was a wonderful man who will be greatly missed by his friends and family,” the official said. “The President is happy that he’s been able to share the events of these recent years with his great-uncle and was grateful to have spoken with him recently before he passed. The President also spoke to his family after his passing to express his condolences.”

Mr. Payne was in the news in 2008, when Obama, in response to a question at a Memorial Day event, said his uncle was among the American troops that liberated Auschwitz.

Conservative pundits and the Republican National Committee seized on the comment as untrue, because the Soviets liberated the concentration camp in Poland. Campaign officials later corrected Obama’s statement, saying Mr. Payne had been at Buchenwald. His infantry division liberated Ohrduf, a subcamp of Buchenwald.

Mr. Payne discussed what he saw at Ohrduf in an interview with the Associated Press a couple of months after the president’s flub. He said Obama probably heard the story from his grandparents, “whose grasp of geography wasn’t always the firmest.”

Mr. Payne said that by using a mix of English and German, he and a prisoner were able to communicate. “With great difficulty we conversed and, if I got what it was he was telling me about, it was that the Germans had killed a million Jews and that the world didn’t really know this yet,” he told the AP.

He saw “a circle of the inmates in their rags, and you could see they were mostly near starvation. They were there with their tin cups like they were called to get food, then had been machine-gunned.”

He told the AP he saw bodies stacked like cordwood, and survivors who were “nothing but just skin over bones.”

“He was very, very shaken” by what he saw, said his wife, Melanie. “Nobody knew anything about this. Now, we know so much.”

Mr. Payne said he was “truly astonished” at the flap over Obama’s death camp comments, and that he was proud of his grand-nephew. He said Obama was “truly an astounding young man and always has been.”

Mr. Payne was born in Peru, Kansas and went to college on the GI bill, earning a chemical engineering degree from Kansas State University. He continued his studies at the University of Chicago Graduate Library School. In 1960, he met Melanie Payne while both were students at U of C, where Obama later would lecture on constitutional law.

Melanie Payne said she found her future husband to be intelligent, quick-witted, and “sort of a man of the world.” They married in 1963.

The couple didn’t get to know Obama until he came to Chicago to be a community organizer. Melanie Payne told the Sun-Times he came to their home and talked about family. Obama’s grandmother, Mr. Payne’s sister, was a strong influence on the president. Growing up, he lived with her in Honolulu. His nickname for her was Toot, short for a Hawaiian term for grandmother: Tutu. “She’s the one who taught me about hard work,” Obama has said. “She’s the one who put off buying a new car or a new dress for herself so that I could have a better life.”

The Paynes found Obama bright, but “there was no glimmer of the future at that point,” Melanie Payne said.

In her final days, Mr. Payne spoke of his sister’s pride in her grandson.

“I think she thinks she was important in raising a fine young man,” Charles Payne said. “I doubt if it would occur to her that he would go this far this fast. But she’s enjoyed watching it.”

Mr. Payne’s career straddled the shift from card catalogs to computers. “It’s so hard to imagine, now,” Melanie Payne said. “Librarians wrote things on little cards and they were in drawers. That was the way records were kept.”

He was “a leader in early library automation,” said Alice Schreyer, interim library director at the University of Chicago. In 1964, he became its first Systems Librarian. His work led to implementation of the university’s Library Data Management System, or LDMS, one of the first library automated systems. He served from 1975 to 1992 as the library’s assistant director for systems before retiring in 1995.

Known for mentoring staffers, “He certainly brought great intelligence and passion, and again, I think the humor that we all need in an intense workplace,” Schreyer said.

At the 2008 Democratic Convention, then-U.S. Sen. John Kerry introduced “Charlie” Payne as “an American hero.”

“Nobody ever called him Charlie,” his wife said.

Nobody, that is, except for Obama’s grandmother — and Obama himself.

Until last year, the Paynes joined the Obamas for family-only Thanksgiving dinners at the White House, his wife said.

Mr. Payne died at Warren Barr Gold Coast. His death notice in Chicago newspapers, which simply listed “Barack Obama” among his nieces and nephews, is similar to one written about his sister, Margaret Dunham, who died in North Carolina last month. Hers focused on her achievements as a college professor and also listed Obama among her survivors, with no mention of his title.

“I think if Charles were here to edit his own obituary, I think if it had said ‘President Barack Obama,’ I think he would have thought it was grandstanding,” Melanie Payne said. “Because first and foremost, he’s family. And he happens to be the president. You know? It’s not the other way around.”

Mr. Payne is also survived by his son, Richard, and his brother, Jon. There will be no service. Burial is private.

Contributing: Lynn Sweet; Associated Press

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