Alice G. Dewey, a University of Hawaii anthropology professor emeritus who helped document Barack Obama’s upbringing on Oahu while his U.S. heritage was being questioned, died of a stroke June 11. She was 88.
Services will be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 23 at the UH Music Department on Dole Street.
Dewey was the granddaughter of John Dewey, an American philosopher and educator who founded the philosophical movement known as pragmatism, Nancy Cooper, a UH anthropology lecturer, wrote to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. She was born Dec. 4, 1928, in Huntington, N.Y.
But Dewey’s mentorship of Obama’s mother, UH doctoral graduate Stanley Ann Dunham, placed Dewey into national prominence in 2008 when so-called “birthers,” led by current President Donald Trump, began questioning Obama’s 1961 birth at the hospital then called Kapiolani Maternity &Gynecological Hospital.
“During Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns, Dewey became something of a media star, sought after by news reporters in their hunger for details about the president’s early life,” Cooper wrote. “Dewey could often be found in her book-filled office on the Manoa campus, giving interviews to newspapers and radio reporters, and magazine writers. … Dewey joked about her ‘second career’ as a spokesperson for Dunham.”
Dewey’s influence on Dunham’s work helping craftsmen in Indonesia and Africa acquire small “micro loans” to improve their lives and their villages likely helped shape Obama’s approach to economic and foreign policy.
In a 2008 interview with The Honolulu Advertiser, Dewey said Dunham’s work “made it clear that you had to understand what they (the people you hope to help) are doing and for what. The implication for (then) Sen. Obama is that if you’re going to do something intended to help somebody, you’d better understand the implications and whether it’s suited to the economics of that place. Just throwing money at a problem doesn’t do it. You really have to understand what you’re doing in order to help people.”
In the mid-1950s, according to Cooper, Dewey was a graduate student at Radcliffe College, Harvard University when she joined a team studying East Javanese society and culture, and went on to become a “well-regarded scholar of Javanese culture,” particularly the critical roles that women played in the local market system.
“She said her grandfather’s ideas on pragmatism inspired her to study how ordinary people from other societies survive and make meaning out of their lives,” Cooper wrote. “Anthropologists regarded her monograph ‘Peasant Marketing in Java’ as seminal study of economic anthropology and Javanese culture. Dewey also did field work studying the Maoris of New Zealand and a Javanese community in New Caledonia.”
“Dewey was noted for her kindness and generosity to graduate students, many who were struggling to get by on small stipends,” Cooper wrote.
Dewey offered them rooms in her large Manoa home, stored their possessions, loaned them her car and ferried them to and from the airport, Cooper wrote. About those who asked to borrow money, the professor joked about the “Dewey Foundation,” which was simply Dewey’s own pocketbook.
Dewey joined the UH faculty in 1962 and retired in 2005, Cooper wrote. She is survived by her niece Rhonda Dewey of Tuscon, Ariz., and two grandnieces.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Dewey’s memory to the Hawaii Gamelan Society and mailed to Nancy Cooper at Saunders Hall 346, 2424 Maile Way, Honolulu 96822.