Marian Robinson, mother of Michelle Obama, dies at 86

31 May 2024

WASHINGTON — Marian Shields Robinson, the mother of Michelle Obama who moved with the first family to the White House when son-in-law Barack Obama was elected president, has died. She was 86.

Mrs. Robinson’s death was announced by Michelle Obama and other family members in a statement that said “there was and will be only one Marian Robinson. In our sadness, we are lifted up by the extraordinary gift of her life.”

She was a widow and lifelong Chicago resident when she moved to the executive mansion in 2009 to help care for granddaughters Malia and Sasha. In her early 70s, Mrs. Robinson initially resisted the idea of starting over in Washington, and Michelle Obama had to enlist her brother, Craig, to help persuade their mother to move.

“There were many good and valid reasons that Michelle raised with me, not the least of which was the opportunity to continue spending time with my granddaughters, Malia and Sasha, and to assist in giving them a sense of normalcy that is a priority for both of their parents, as has been from the time Barack began his political career,” Mrs. Robinson wrote in the foreword to “A Game of Character,” a memoir by her son, formerly the head men’s basketball coach at Oregon State University.

“My feeling, however, was that I could visit periodically without actually moving in and still be there for the girls,” she said.

Mrs. Robinson wrote that her son understood why she wanted to stay in Chicago but still used a line of reasoning on her that she often used on him and his sister. He asked her to see the move as a chance to grow and try something new. As a compromise, she agreed to move, at least temporarily.

Granddaughters Malia and Sasha were just 10 and 7, respectively, when the White House became home in 2009. In Chicago, Mrs. Robinson had become almost a surrogate parent to the girls during the 2008 presidential campaign. She retired from her job as a bank secretary to help shuttle them around.

At the White House, Mrs. Robinson provided a reassuring presence for the girls as their parents settled into their new roles, and her lack of Secret Service protection made it possible for her to accompany them to and from school daily without fanfare.

“I would not be who I am today without the steady hand and unconditional love of my mother, Marian Shields Robinson,” Michelle Obama wrote in her 2018 memoir, “Becoming.” “She has always been my rock, allowing me the freedom to be who I am, while never allowing my feet to get too far off the ground. Her boundless love for my girls, and her willingness to put our needs before her own, gave me the comfort and confidence to venture out into the world knowing they were safe and cherished at home.”

Mrs. Robinson gave a few media interviews but never to White House press. Aides guarded her privacy, and, as result, she enjoyed a level of anonymity openly envied by the president and first lady. It allowed her to come and go from the White House as often as she pleased on shopping runs around town, to the president’s box at the Kennedy Center and for trips to Las Vegas or to visit her other grandchildren in Portland, Oregon.

She attended some White House events, including concerts, the annual Easter Egg Roll and National Christmas Tree lighting, and some state dinners.

White House residency also opened up the world to Mrs. Robinson, who had been a widow for nearly 20 years when she moved to a room on the third floor of the White House, one floor above the first family. She had never traveled outside the U.S. until she moved to Washington.

Her first flight out of the country was aboard Air Force One in 2009 when the Obamas visited France. She joined the Obamas on a trip to Russia, Italy and Ghana later that year, during which she got to meet Pope Benedict, tour Rome’s ancient Colosseum and view a former slave-holding compound on the African coast. She also accompanied her daughter and granddaughters on two overseas trips without the president: to South Africa and Botswana in 2011, and China in 2014.

Craig Robinson wrote in the memoir that he and his parents doubted whether his sister’s relationship with Barack Obama would last, though Fraser Robinson III and his wife thought the young lawyer was a worthy suitor for their daughter, also a lawyer. Without explanation, Craig Robinson said his mother gave the relationship six months.

Barack and Michelle Obama were married on Oct. 3, 1992.

One of seven children, Marian Lois Shields Robinson was born in Chicago on July 30, 1937. She attended two years of teaching college, married in 1960 and, as a stay-at-home mom, stressed the importance of education to her children. Both were educated at Ivy League schools, each with a bachelor’s degree from Princeton. Michelle Obama also has a law degree from Harvard.

Fraser Robinson was a pump operator for the Chicago Water Department who had multiple sclerosis. He died in 1991.

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