Q: Name changes occur when there is an adoption, marriage or when someone is placed in a witness protection program. I am still curious about the name change from Barry Soetoro to Barack Obama. When he moved from Jakarta to Hawaii to attend high school, he was still Barry as well as when he began college. When and why the name change?
Margaret Godwin Bergmark, of Lebanon
A: Like father, like son — only in reverse this time.
When Barack Obama Sr. earned a scholarship in 1959 and became the first African student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, he wanted to fit in. Since the foreign-sounding “Barack” might tend to keep new acquaintances at arm’s length, he decided that using the nickname “Barry” would help him better mesh with others in this strange, new world in which he suddenly had been thrown. It’s much the same reason a Johann from Germany might become Joe or an Italian Amadea might want to be called Amy. Nevertheless, he was proud enough of his formal name that after he and Ann Dunham married in 1961, they named their son, Barack Hussein Obama II.
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As a youngster, the former president likely never gave much thought to what impression a first name might have, so, like his father, he was known as Barry. But if you read his book “Dreams From My Father,” you’ll find that early on he says he began a quest for his identity — to determine who he was and how this product of multiple cultures fit into the American melting pot.
As a result, soon after enrolling at Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1979, he began to feel as if he were at a “dead end — that somehow I needed to connect with something bigger than myself,” he once told Newsweek. So when some at Occidental started to call him Barack, he came to prefer it for several reasons. The name tied him to his African father, even though he had returned to Kenya years before. By his own account, he said he was trying to be different, trying to be “cool.” He said he also was trying to reinvent himself: “It was when I made a conscious decision: I want to grow up.” And, to his mind, Barack sounded much more grown-up than Barry.
According to his half sister Maya, Obama, then 19, came home at Christmas in 1980 and told his family there would be no more Barry. From then on, he wanted to be called Barack. Obama himself said his announcement came the following summer when his mother visited him in New York. Either way, he’s been Barack ever since even though both he and Maya say his family continued to affectionately call him “Bar,” the shortened form of Barry.
As for his last name, I really don’t want to dredge up all of the Soetoro-Obama conspiracy theories again. Suffice it to say that every legitimate report I can find say that when Barack and his mom moved to Jakarta in 1967 to join her new husband, Lolo Soetoro, Indonesian law prohibited Soetoro from formally adopting his stepson because little Barry was too old. So although one school enrollment form lists a Barry Soetoro, it was believed to be simply a matter of convenience to have all family members use the same last name. When he moved back to Hawaii to attend a private school four years later, he was still Barack Obama.
May I also remind you that two other recent presidents really did change their name out of family pride and loyalty. Leslie Lynch King Jr. legally changed his name to Gerald Ford when he was 22 and William Jefferson Blythe III became William Clinton when he was 15.
Who was the first president born outside the original 13 states?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: The College Park (Md.) Airport is still flying high as the world’s oldest airport still in operation. Leased on Aug. 25, 1909, by the U.S. Army Signal Corps, the airport saw its first plane — a Wright Type A biplane — uncrated and assembled on Oct. 7. Wilbur Wright, who with brother Orville had made the world’s first successful airplane flight six years earlier, then trained Lts. Frederic Humphreys and Frank Lahm to fly the government’s first airplane. Since then, the airport has racked up a long list of firsts, including the first female passenger in an airplane (Wilbur Wright took Irene Van Deman on a flight on Oct. 27, 1909); the first mile-high flight by a powered airplane; and the first controlled helicopter flight. Today, it serves as a getaway to Prince George’s County, Md., and Washington, D.C.