Maxine Box was beaming as she walked toward the portrait of her former classmate, Dr. Stanley Ann Dunham.
As Box inched closer, she was in awe of the stunning, lifelike piece that was painted by artist Al Doggett.
“I have to say it is just like Stanley is in the room. It shows the joy in her face,” said Box, who added that she spent three years at Mercer Island High School (MIHS) with Dunham and recalled her opening words to Box, “My name is Stanley — my dad wanted a son.”
Laughter reverberated throughout the MIHS foyer on Nov. 29, which would have been Dunham’s 80th birthday. The prolific 1960 Islander graduate died of cancer at the age of 52 in 1995. During her lifetime, she was a pioneering anthropologist, activist and mother of 44th United States President Barack Obama and distinguished academic scholar Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng.
Box said she was proud to be pals with Dunham, who she recalls smiling brightly just like in the portrait.
“Education to her was her main goal for herself and for her children and then she became an educator to less-advantaged women, which is very important,” Box said.
MIHS Associate Principal Nick Wold said the portrait matches the vibrant school foyer, and students can celebrate Dunham each day as they stroll by Doggett’s creation.
Brooks Kahsai, a senior and member of the MIHS Black Student Union, told the crowd, “While we here at MIHS recognize her as an esteemed alumni, others may recognize the sacrifices and contributions as a mother and an activist.” He added that she was a dedicated scholar and President Obama credited his mother for instilling her values and lessons in him along his life path.
Michelle Flowers-Taylor, a MIHS alumni of the class of 1988 and board chair of the Stanley Ann Dunham Scholarship Fund, spoke fondly of Dunham and noted that she highly valued educational excellence, leadership and community service. Dunham’s legacy endures in the scholarship fund, which supports female-identifying students who mirror Dunham’s character and are headed into the college realm.
As she glanced at a wall brimming with photos in the foyer, Flowers-Taylor said she is humbled to be in the company of Dunham and other standouts who have received MIHS Pathfinder Awards.
Flowers-Taylor hopes that students can be inspired by Dunham’s legacy when they view the “beautiful” and “thoughtful” portrait, which was financed by a Seattle Foundation education fund. She said that MIHS students who reside on a compact island can follow in Dunham’s footsteps and make an impact in the world.
“Maybe when you see this portrait, you can be reminded of that. Big things sometimes come from small places, and I urge you guys to dream and reach for the highest height, because you can do a lot of things in your life and I’m very proud of you now,” Flowers-Taylor said.
Proud artist Doggett, who hails from Seattle, said it was an honor and privilege to capture Dunham’s personality on canvas. He felt connected to Dunham by researching her life and studying photos of her. He was captivated by her story and travels to Indonesia and beyond to become immensely involved in art, economic anthropology and rural development and more.
“She was creative, and that kind of drew me into who she was and it was a joy to connect with her in a sense,” he said. “And that’s what I wanted to do with the portrait, I wanted to get to know her to bring that out as much as I could.”
Bringing Dunham’s full life into the picture, Doggett included striking images of Obama and Soetoro-Ng and snippets of Indonesia and the Hawaii map in the portrait. Reaching back to her formative years at MIHS, the school name and logo are prominently placed in the piece.
A plaque near the portrait features inspirational quotes from her son and daughter about their mother’s immense influence on their lives and those she deeply connected with along the way.
“Our mother’s scholarship was made truly meaningful by the fact she loved the people she wrote about and hoped that others would hear their song,” noted Soetoro-Ng.
Obama added in his message: “I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that what is best in me I owe to her.”
For more information, visit https://stanleyanndunhamfund.org/. The fund was founded in 2010 by MIHS graduates Harry Leavitt and Tony Nugent and copious other MIHS grads and teachers.