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Old friends from Punahou provide sanctuary for Obama

By Jackie Calmes


Associated press / aug. 14, 2008President Barack Obama's close-knit group of friends, dating back to high school, have kept in touch since 2004. The group has been a source of comfort to Obama, who has been described as a loner. Pictured is Obama, second from right, walking with Bobby Titcomb, second from left, and Greg Orme, far right, after throwing a lei into the Pacific Ocean at the point where he scattered his mother's ashes in Honolulu.

WASHINGTON » President Barack Obama has called Hawaii his refuge, and so it has been throughout his political life. In 2006, Obama used the family Christmas holiday there to decide whether to run for president. For the past two weeks, he has been recharging on Oahu after an unpleasant year in the job.

As is usual when on the island, the president has been far from political advisers and hangers-on, and has instead spent time with the high school friends who have come to be known collectively, if inaccurately, as the "Choom Gang."

For a reputed loner, Obama has remained remarkably close to a trio he met as a teenager at Punahou School -- boys of Hawaii's year-round summer with whom he played basketball, bodysurfed, drank beer and, like so many other young islanders in the 1970s, smoked marijuana, the "choom" of that long-ago nickname.

Now they mainly just golf -- more than 30 hours in six outings this vacation -- and trash-talk, just like in the old days.

After years during which the friends grew apart, Obama reconnected with Mike Ramos, Bobby Titcomb and Greg Orme a decade ago. They agreed to rendezvous in Hawaii every year for the holidays, and their reunions became regular even as Obama was busy climbing to senator and president, a path none of them imagined nearly four decades ago and 5,000 miles from Washington.

The annual gatherings perhaps speak to Obama's greater need for their connection now that he has what is called the loneliest job in the world.

"For the president to be able to be with a group where he can be absolutely relaxed -- a group that knows him from his youth on, and who he knows are friends with him not because of what he became, but because of who he is -- is a really comforting and warm thing," said David Axelrod, Obama's longtime strategist.

Not many presidents retained friendships from as far back as high school, although George W. Bush had close friends from his prep school days at Andover. John F. Kennedy had his band of brothers from wartime. Some, like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, counted later acquaintances among political donors as friends.

But generally, said presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, "It does seem like these presidents need to find a sanctuary -- whether it's a place or a group of people -- where they can just be themselves and feel the connection from the present to the past." High school friends who predate adulthood and professional attainments often know each other's siblings, parents, even grandparents -- and know each other in a way that later friends often cannot.

"I brood," Obama's friend Ramos said a few years ago. "He's not like that."

Ramos was a year ahead of Obama's Punahou Class of '79 but played with him on the basketball team. Like Obama, he was of mixed parentage -- the son of a Filipino father and a Czech mother -- and his parents were divorced. He knew the "really small apartment" that Obama lived in with his grandparents and what a talker "Gramps" was.

Although the Choom Gang has come to define Obama's high school circle -- owing partly to the president's memoir, "Dreams from My Father," and a notation that Obama made in his senior yearbook thanking the Choom Gang for good times -- Ramos said in an interview after leaving Oahu this week that the phrase does not describe their circle. He said only Orme, another Punahou hoops player, was in the gang that Obama described.

But while they did enjoy marijuana, Ramos acknowledged, "We played a lot more basketball than we smoked pot."

Get-togethers in the decades after high school were rare as the men built careers and families, although Ramos, Titcomb and Orme attended the Obamas' Chicago wedding in 1992. Only Titcomb stayed in Hawaii. Obama and the others often would visit family members there at Christmas, and on occasion the men would meet, but it was not until 2004 that they agreed to gather annually.

That first year, Ramos said, "I remember coming home from a golf outing and literally starting to cry," so emotional was the contrast he felt between their friendships and the "transactional" ones he said he had since formed as a businessman.

"For me it's the unconditional love, it's the nontransactional nature of the relationship -- that enduring quality. That is something that I really value," he said.

Likewise for Obama, it seems. The Hawaii holidays became "more and more appealing," he said in an interview just after he began his run for president.

"Hawaii is a remarkable place," he said. "It remains a refuge for me when I travel there during the winter, my family and I, and see friends from high school."

In December 2006, as Obama decided on his first presidential campaign, the friends talked about how the race would complicate their next getaway. The Obamas did skip Hawaii in 2007, and instead the friends joined Obama in wintry Iowa for the January 2008 presidential caucuses. But twice that year the group gathered in Hawaii -- in August before the Democratic National Convention and in December after Obama's election.

In April 2011, Titcomb was arrested on a charge of soliciting prostitution in a Honolulu sting operation, but the reunions with the president never stopped. Obama's concern, Axelrod said, was for Titcomb, whose arrest was international news because he "happened to be Barack Obama's friend."

Titcomb was golfing with the president within hours of the Obamas' Dec. 21 arrival on Oahu. He attended a college basketball game with the first family the next day, and this week he and his wife hosted their annual barbecue for the other families, including those of the Obamas' Chicago friends, Eric Whitaker and Marty Nesbitt.

Orme was unable to travel to Hawaii for the recent holiday, but the others called him twice. They marked the 10th year of their rendezvous by looking through old photos, Ramos said, "of when the kids were young and the dads had dark hair." And of course, he said, they all -- the president included -- reflected on the past year.

But, said Ramos, who is in the process of a divorce, "We probably spent more time talking about my situation than we did about his."

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Mythman wrote:
What a fabulous piece of Hawaii history and lore - Punahou is the greatest.
on January 4,2014 | 04:47AM
kekelaward wrote:
Yep, lots of great graduates that went on to do great things. Too bad so many people will remember that school for this drug taking, average, at best, student.
on January 4,2014 | 11:40AM
Wazdat wrote:
hahaha, did you swallow a bitter pill...
on January 4,2014 | 12:51PM
star08 wrote:
And, drunk high school partiers who crash into others cars and lie about it.
on January 4,2014 | 08:22PM
Slow wrote:
Yep, that is the essence of Punahou. Bet you are really glad you didn't go there!
on January 5,2014 | 06:44AM
Slow wrote:
You and your off-spring failed to get accepted at Punahou, eh Mythy? Your resentment defines you.
on January 5,2014 | 06:43AM
manakuke wrote:
No wonder he returns to these islands.
on January 4,2014 | 05:19AM
krusha wrote:
I bet he's going to buy a home here after his presidential days are over.
on January 4,2014 | 05:58AM
false wrote:
The talk was that he already has. Where else could he have peace and serenity?
on January 4,2014 | 07:03AM
Wazdat wrote:
Nice story, thank you.
on January 4,2014 | 06:14AM
Anonymous wrote:
True friendship is hard to come by. Nicely written.
on January 4,2014 | 06:50AM
false wrote:
Thank you for the positive light on the president's escape from realities. It's a breath of fresh air for all of us. Yes, this Punahou graduate put Hawaii on the political map, continuing the light cast by Inouye. How lucky we are to reflect such political intelligence. But then we know the coin has two sides. Be nice. It becomes you.
on January 4,2014 | 07:07AM
Rapanui00 wrote:
are you kidding Inouye should have been replaced long ago - no more pork folks!
on January 4,2014 | 09:19AM
Slow wrote:
It's been over a year. Still full of resentment? Happy New Year.
on January 5,2014 | 06:45AM
itsok wrote:
such a touching glimpse of humanity...
on January 4,2014 | 07:20AM
2disgusted2 wrote:
Nero fiddled while Rome burned
on January 4,2014 | 08:30AM
Rapanui00 wrote:
yes you have that right - Punahou folks is just a high school and NOT a college or University. Hawaii is the only place on the planet where in a social setting schooling comes up and someone refers to there high school - it says a lot about the third world place we call Hawaii. Of course its a way of social class structure - its all so pathetic!
on January 4,2014 | 09:18AM
Wazdat wrote:
Leave then
on January 4,2014 | 12:52PM
busterb wrote:
LOL, well played Waz. Hey Rapa, go carve a giant head and deplete your lands of trees!
on January 4,2014 | 03:51PM
Rapanui00 wrote:
truth REALLY hurts doesn't it?
on January 4,2014 | 06:02PM
Slow wrote:
Hey Rapa, are you allie? He'she disappeared and you appeared. I am happy some clod has filled the throne of the Babbling Troll.
on January 5,2014 | 06:47AM
Larry01 wrote:
Someone sounds jealous. And if Hawaii is such a "third world" to you, either you enjoy the third world, or are crazy for staying. Let the people who enjoy and love Hawaii remain here.
on January 4,2014 | 02:44PM
NanakuliBoss wrote:
Well written article. One can feel the power of the aina when born on these shores. We are connected by the piko to our mother, connected to Hawaii by our hearts. All races on these beautiful islands. The most remote location on earth. The next remote location, Heaven.
on January 4,2014 | 09:24AM
cojef wrote:
True, when born in the islands, it is impossible to shake off. Yet have managed to live in the mainland since 1954. Have a strange feeling when reading articles about someone visiting Hawaii. At least temporarily feel rejuvenated after visiting the islands. Powerful mana, maybe?
on January 4,2014 | 10:39AM
Wazdat wrote:
well said
on January 4,2014 | 12:52PM
star08 wrote:
IRT NKB- poetic and true, a deep `i connection to `aina & wai and ha, Mahalo.
on January 4,2014 | 08:24PM
kekelaward wrote:
What pap.
on January 4,2014 | 11:38AM
kekelaward wrote:
I wonder why we can't see his grades from Punahou. Oh, that's right, sealed. Unlike any other modern President of these United States.
on January 4,2014 | 11:42AM
ahi1pfb wrote:
Such great friends Bobby Titcomb, prostitute solicitor and where is Keith Kakugawa aka Ray, oh wait he's awaiting trial on rape charges in California. What a great circle of friends you keep. No different than your administration of tax evaders and sixties era terrorists.Wake up from the deception America.
on January 4,2014 | 11:47AM
Rapanui00 wrote:
yes as always people do not want to hear the truth as it hurts there non critical thinking minds
on January 4,2014 | 06:04PM
st1d wrote:
marijuana and hookers. good friends like these and what more could a guy ask for? . . . more . . . more . . .
on January 4,2014 | 12:26PM
st1d wrote:
choom and working girls. that's what are friends are for. (2nd try)
on January 4,2014 | 12:27PM
busterb wrote:
C'mon post the same stuff one more time st1d. Maybe someone will give a hoot.
on January 4,2014 | 03:53PM
st1d wrote:
censors took the first attempt for approval.
on January 4,2014 | 06:16PM
Ezdeewilly wrote:
Great message for all the other spoiled brats at Punahou. You can be a pot head and drink beer and still be POTUS
on January 4,2014 | 03:19PM
false wrote:
Obama's no worse than most politicians, but I thought he and his friends knew better than to throw a lei into the ocean. The string can be lethal to marine life. Loose flowers should be the call.
on January 4,2014 | 04:46PM
NanakuliBoss wrote:
They mentioned that dissolvable string was use to distract the haters.
on January 4,2014 | 05:50PM
Watergate_Mike wrote:
"Non-transactional friends" - the very definition of true unconditional friendship. Keepers all, Mr. President.
on January 5,2014 | 08:59AM
tutulois wrote:
I wonder if this Titcomb is related to Margaret Titcomb, who worked for years at the Bishop Museum in their library. I had the privilege of working with her for several months when I was a college student.
on January 5,2014 | 12:30PM
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