UNC researcher, a pioneering academic, kept kinship to Obama to herself

akenney@newsobserver.comJune 23, 2014 

Margaret Arlene Payne

COURTESY OF MARGERY DUFFEY

— Margaret Arlene Payne’s obituary tells the story of a pioneering academic. She authored two books, had a doctorate from the University of Chicago and was a former research professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Only the end of her death notice names the relation she kept proudly to herself. Listed ninth among her survivors, amid the nieces and nephews of different generations, was the name Barack Obama. Payne’s sister was the president’s grandmother.

“He was in the place of the relatives, which is what he was for her,” said Margery Duffey, a close friend who lived in Chapel Hill with Payne for 34 years.

Beginning in the late 1960s, Duffey and Payne worked together through academia. Payne was educated first in nutrition in her native Kansas, then earned her doctorate in measurement and statistical analysis in Chicago.

“There weren’t very many (women) who had Ph.Ds. I think she was proud of her work at the University of Chicago ... and being able then to share knowledge with others,” said Duffey, 88, a former professor of nursing at the University of Kansas.

Duffey and Payne often traveled together, and it was on a trip to Hawaii that Duffey first met the young boy who would become president.

“I don’t think he was a teenager yet,” Duffey said. “I think he was 10 or 12.”

Duffey and Payne, who went by Arlene, were in good company among Payne’s academic family.

“Just about anything you can come up with, they had an opinion,” Duffey said.

Obama’s mother and Payne’s niece, Stanley Ann Dunham, eventually earned a Ph.D. Madelyn Dunham – Payne’s sister and Obama’s grandmother – was the vice president of a bank and “one of the smartest people” Obama ever knew, he told ABC News in 2008.

Payne herself became professor of nutrition and director of a related graduate program at the University of Kansas Medical Center, according to her obituary.

Both Payne and Duffey moved to Chapel Hill in 1980 and took professorships at UNC. They lived for decades on Laurel Hill Road, less than a mile from the football stadium and the games they often attended.

“She was an excellent companion with an excellent sense of humor, and we loved to travel,” Duffey said.

Through the years, they’d fly to visit Duffey’s older sister in Hawaii, and vice versa, while Obama’s mother traveled the world.

“Close in mind, but not so close physically,” Duffey said.

Payne particularly loved Stanley Ann Dunham, who died in 1995, only two years before Dunham’s son, Obama, took his first elected office in the Illinois Senate.

By then, Payne and Duffey’s careers had ended with retirement in Chapel Hill. Their impressive resumes complete, they became two of the first observers of Obama’s extraordinary political career.

“We watched it, yes. We watched very carefully – and they were in touch on holidays like Christmas, her birthday,” Duffey said.

One of Duffey and Payne’s last trips together was an outing with Obama’s family in Chicago, 15 years ago, to celebrate the 75th birthday of Payne’s brother, Charles.

As Obama rose to national prominence, his great-aunt in North Carolina was increasingly immobile, slowed by a heart valve replacement.

By the time of Obama’s first inauguration, she and Duffey had left Laurel Hill Road for the Cedars Retirement Community, where they watched Payne’s great-nephew become president on television, unable to make the trip themselves.

The two women never told their friends in the retirement community about their connection to Obama.

In Payne’s last years she enjoyed reading and watching sports on television. She remained cognizant and communicative until the last two days of her life, when she slipped into unconsciousness, Duffey said.

Margaret Payne was 87 when she died on June 18 at the retirement community’s health center. There won’t be a service, according to her obituary.

The president called Duffey with condolences the day after Payne’s death.

“He was quite fond of her, he told me when he called me,” Duffey said.

“She was proud of what he did, she was proud of him. But she didn’t make anything of the fact that he was president,” she said. “It didn’t impress her, I guess, to be the aunt of a president.”

Payne’s family asks that, in lieu of flowers, her friends and mourners give to charity.

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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