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Wednesday, April 13, 2011
'Mama Kaye' Wilson, godmother to the Obama girls, is a low-profile member of president's inner circle
April 06, 2011|By Katherine Skiba and Lolly Bowean, Tribune reporters
For her long friendship with the Obamas, 65-year-old Kaye Wilson has been lavished with invitations to state dinners, Camp David and trips aboard Air Force One.
But the Olympia Fields woman — "Mama Kaye" to the president and other friends — is one of the least known people in his inner circle and seems to like it that way.
Her ties to the Obama family are many, and in some cases, uniquely hers.
She's godmother to daughters Malia, 12, and Sasha, 9.
She's close to first lady Michelle Obama and her live-in mother, Marian Robinson.
She has gotten a shout-out from President Barack Obama for organizing prayer circles for him.
Her husband, retired educator Wellington Wilson, has golfed with Obama. He's "Papa Wellington," even to the president.
The Wilsons' ties to the First Family gained new attention last month when Mama Kaye, with Robinson, accompanied them on an official visit to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador.
Earlier Wilson and Robinson traveled in tandem, rather quietly, to care for the girls on 2009 trips with their parents to Russia, Italy, Ghana, France and England.
But in Rio, Santiago and San Salvador, the name "Mama Kaye" started showing up in pool reports, the short takes from journalists describing the presidential party's coming and goings. She greeted foreign officials and enjoyed red-carpet treatment, just footsteps behind the president.
Reporters asked Obama spokesman Jay Carney who she was, and at first he drew a blank.
"A mother figure," explained one Chicago friend. "An adopted grandmother," said another.
Known in Chicago for work in education and social services, Kaye Wilson long helped care for the Obama girls: baby-sitting them, driving them to activities and styling their hair.
After Obama won the presidency, the voluble, gregarious woman told The Washington Post that she didn't want to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom, lest she'd be the one to spill coffee on the Gettysburg Address.
But lately she's been seen, not heard, and turned down a Tribune request for an interview.
Friend Edith Crigler, an official at the Chicago Area Project, said Kaye Wilson is "guarded" about her ties to the Obamas and not out for publicity. "She says, 'I'm not the public figures, they are.'"
Seventy-six-year-old Wellington Wilson, an ex-Marine, worked for City Colleges of Chicago for 30 years, becoming president of Kennedy-King College before retiring in 2003.
In a 2009 Tribune interview, he said a daughter of theirs went to high school with Michelle Obama. Recently he noted that his wife met Barack Obama through an anti-poverty group, the Woods Fund of Chicago. She worked there from 1994 to 1997, coinciding with Obama's service on its board.
By 1999, then-state Sen. Obama presented Kennedy-King College with a $500,000 grant to inaugurate a program for training students in fields such as nursing and heating, ventilation and air conditioning, the college said. He was back a year later with $400,000 in state dollars for the program.
Over time, Kaye Wilson and her husband became like kin. News reports from the inauguration, which fell on her birthday, had her at Obama's side from a morning church service to a late-night after-party.
One friend, Ellen Schumer, who attended the swearing-in, caught the parade on TV and had a "There's Kaye!" moment when she saw her close to the president. Schumer, who leads a nonprofit, Community Organizing and Family Issues, emailed her and she emailed back: "'It's just a whirlwind. It's so exciting. But I'm happy to be here for the (Obama) kids.'"
By June 2009, Obama put Kaye Wilson on the President's Commission on White House Fellowships, along with his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, Tom Brokaw, architect Maya Lin and others.
At the news, the White House heralded Wilson's 35-plus years with educational groups, government agencies and nonprofits and said her past employers included DePaul University's School for New Learning and the old Chicago City-Wide College.
In January 2010, Obama marked his first Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as president by including both Wilsons in a small gathering at the White House to talk with young people about King's legacy.
Last February, Obama singled out "Mama Kaye" at a prayer breakfast in Washington for setting up prayer circles for him around the country. She started with her own Bible study group, he said, but "once I started running for president and she heard what they were saying about me on cable, she felt the need to pray harder."
After he took office, she was praying eight or nine times a day, Obama said, "so she enlisted help."
Friends called Kaye Wilson a skilled networker and grant writer with a flair for baking and making jewelry, hats and scarves.
"Just like Mrs. Robinson, Kaye provides guidance for the girls, Malia and Sasha," said Jacky Grimshaw, a former Obama neighbor in Chicago's Kenwood district. She had a "There's Kaye!" moment when she saw her in the news returning from El Salvador. Grimshaw is with the Center for Neighborhood Technology.
Kaye Wilson offers familiarity and loyalty in a White House that can be lonely, Grimshaw added. "Folks who will always be with you level with you. You know them; they know you. There's no pretense. There are people who will tell you, 'You've got on the wrong pair of socks.'"
The Wilsons' pastor, the Rev. James H. King, spoke first of food when talking about Kaye Wilson, judging: "A fantastic cook. You'd want to get some of her apple-peach cobbler." He is with The Emmaus Community, a nondenominational Christian church in Chicago Heights.
Others tout her dinner rolls. And when Family Circle magazine asked Michelle Obama for a cookie recipe, she volunteered a shortbread cookie recipe calling for a splash of Amaretto, crediting Kaye Wilson.
King called her supportive. "I guess that's where the 'Mama' part comes in. You always need Mama in your corner," the pastor said. "She's going to affirm your ideas and encourage you."
Chicago lawyer Susan Sher, formerly Michelle Obama's top aide, called Wilson a "lovely, calming, warm presence in the life of the girls and the family."
While traveling on Air Force One, Kaye Wilson is a guest of the president, said Katie McCormick Lelyveld, spokeswoman for the first lady. Presidential staff and guests do not pay for such flights. But on overseas trips like the one in March, her "personal expenses during travel are paid for personally," she said, declining to say exactly who is picking up the tab.
The Wilsons were asked to the Obamas' first state dinner, for India, in November 2009, but declined because their four children were due in for Thanksgiving. They accepted the Obamas' invitation to the second state dinner, for Mexico last May.
But they don't thrive on glitz and glamour.
Friend Sheryl Holman, CEO of Community Assistance Programs of Chicago, noted that Kaye Wilson leads the group's "talking circles" to help troubled foster children confront challenges. "She has a talking circle with the kids and gets them to talk about their problems and their troubles being successful. Everybody can't do that. Not many people have the patience with teenagers, but Kaye does."
Peter Nicholasof the Tribune's Washington Bureau contributed.