On Barack Obama's 61st Birthday, He Remembers His Late Mother — and Reveals New Project to Honor Her

·3 min read
barack Obama in hawaii as a child
barack Obama in hawaii as a child

Courtesy The Obama Foundation From left: former President Barack Obama with his mother, Ann Dunham, in Hawaii in the '60s

Barack Obama is celebrating his 61st birthday by naming a new addition to the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago after his mother, Ann Dunham.

On Thursday, the 44th president announced that the Obama Presidential Center's water garden, which will be located near the center's north entrance garden, will be named after his mother.

The water garden "will serve as a designated place on campus meant for reflection and relaxation" and feature an art installation from Maya Lin — the artist who created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. — called "Seeing Through the Universe," which promises to feature an oculus that creates mist and a flat "pebble" piece that will fill with water.

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"When we thought about what may be a fitting way to commemorate my mother's influence on my sister and me, I thought about where she would want to be in this space," Obama said in a release. "I could picture her sitting on one of the benches on a nice summer afternoon, smiling and watching a bunch of kids running through the fountain, and I thought that would capture who she was as well as just about anything else."

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Lin, 62, also created the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, and is one of Obama's personal favorite artists, according to Obama's team. In 2016, Obama awarded Lin with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, during his final months in the White House.

The Ann Dunham Water Garden, as the installation will be known, is funded by contributions from the Obama administration and alumni from the former president's two presidential campaigns, according to the release.

"It means so much to us that this gesture comes from the team who helped President Obama reach the White House and serve the American people," Obama Foundation CEO Valerie Jarrett said in a statement.

"President Obama's mother was an inspiration to him, exemplifying passion, curiosity, and a commitment to service," the statement continued. "Our hope is that the Ann Dunham Water Garden and the Obama Presidential Center inspire the same qualities within our visitors."

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"Ann Dunham was the biggest influence on President Obama's life," reads a post on the Obama Foundation's website from Jarrett Thursday. "She believed strongly in the power of human connection and the inherent dignity in all of us, values she instilled in her children. Decades later, a commitment to those same values would inspire millions of Americans to join a movement that carried President Obama to the White House.

Construction on the Obama Presidential Center broke ground in September 2021 and expects to welcome more than 700,000 visitors to Chicago's South Side, where Obama grew up, annually once it opens in 2025.

Dunham, who was born Stanley Ann Dunham in Kansas in 1942, died of ovarian cancer in Hawaii just before her 53rd birthday in 1995, according to the Stanley Ann Dunham Scholarship Fund website.

Acknowledging his birthday, Michelle Obama posted a sweet tribute Thursday to her "honey," writing, "Life with you just keeps getting better every year. You always make me proud."

In an advance of Obama's birthday, the White House Historical Association announced last week that he and Michelle will return to the White House on Sept. 7 to unveil their official White House portraits, which will hang permanently in the presidential residence.

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