The President’s Family: Meet Virginia and Cecil Goeldner

The prayer request that Virginia Goeldner sent to her pastor, Reverend Dr. Luke Conway, who leads the First United Methodist Church in her hometown, was sincere and obscure.      Having a large congregation, Rev. Dr. Conway knew Virginia and her husband Cecil by name only, until an email arrived one day.      "Please pray for my great nephew," Virginia wrote.    

Rev. Dr. Conway inquired further and learned that the great nephew she spoke of was  Barack Obama , who was, at that time, running for president.      He was amazed.    Back then, only a handful of people knew that Virginia and Cecil Goeldner, of Arkansas, are related to President Obama.    

Virginia speaks of this inside her home, as she sits next to a rather unique garden, which is housed in a dirt flowerbed, located in the middle of the cement slab.        One of the last remaining relatives in the President  immediate family circle on his mother’s side, Virginia is the half-sister to Stanley, President Obama  grandfather, who helped to raise him. 

Background information on the family is offered.      Stanley and Virginia had different mothers, were born 20 years apart, had two other siblings and were raised in Kansas, the place where Virginia met her husband, the only child of Cecil and Hazel Goeldner, a farm family.     Cecil  farming roots date back to 1850, to his father  father. They rotated crops of hay, wheat and milo.  Although Cecil had the opportunity to assume the farm, located in Dirby, KS, he did not.    

He offers an antidote as to why:  "A man wins a million dollars in the lottery.  People ask what he is going to do with it.  He says, matter of factly,   going to farm until the money runs out."    

In time, Cecil distinguished himself as a pilot and later as an employee of a company called Systematics, now known as Alltel, where he installed some of the first data processing machines/automated banking programs. He worked there for 30 years. He then retired.      Throughout his career, he traveled extensively to places such as Greece, England, and Puerto Rico.   "I was the first technical person our clients saw. As soon as I acquired a check, I was the one to make new systems operable. The National Bank of Greece was our first client," he recalls.     "There was another trip, this one to Saudi Arabia, that he speaks of in detail.  No one wanted to go there, but I agreed to," he said. Virginia usually traveled with Cecil.  Before giving up her career to do that, she made and gave demonstrations on how to make porcelain art.      

Virginia says the craft requires diligence.  Her own development as an artist began with drawing–oil, water, color. Then, she progressed to porcelain.      "I think porcelain is an art that has not been highlighted enough," she said. Cecil didn’t realize that his wife actually made money with her work until he came home one day to find she had purchased tickets to Hawaii. They were all going to visit her brother Stanley, his wife, Madelyn, Maya, and Barack.    

When they arrived, everyone was there, except for Barack, who was away in school at Columbia. Throughout the years, Stanley and Virginia kept in touch via letters and telephone calls.  He would write to her of Barack and Maya, often stating how proud he was of them both.  In turn, she would write to him about her children.     Virginia and Cecil met at the Boeing plant in Kansas. The two married in Wellington and had three children: One child died at the age of three and a half to cancer. That left daughter Debi, known as  Laya," and son, Kevin.  Cecil and Virginia moved to Arkansas with Cecil  job after the children had finished school.     The Goeldners’ describe Debi as an honor student who attended the same college that her grandfather did in Lawrence, KS.     As indicated in an earlier article on Lawrence, Kansas, published in Tulsa Today, Vice Mayor of Lawrence, Rob Chestnut, describes the community as one of the best small art and music towns in America, with the greatest population of artists in the United States.     

A linguistics major, Debi worked as a professor at the college in Lawrence, teaching foreign students English.  "One of the students Debi taught became her husband, an Engineering student from Saudi Arabia on scholarship.  He graduated a year before she did," Virginia said. 

"Debi’s  main emphasis was the Arabic language.  She moved to Saudi Arabia with her husband after graduation, where she lives today with their five children.  Kevin graduated with degrees in Architectural Engineering, earning great distinction.  His training afforded opportunities for employment with companies such as McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed Martin, where he is now employed.     In a telephone interview," Kevin states,  "My dad was a pilot. To me, learning how to fly was never a goal I needed to achieve.  It was something we did as a family."     He continues,  "Whatever I have accomplished as a person is due to the way I was brought up.  I was fortunate to have parents that cared for me."    

When Virginia speaks of the impact to her family in regard to her great nephew’s position, she says they have not had too many interruptions.  Mainly, she misses him.  "He is very, very busy," she states.         Both Cecil and Virginia attended the inauguration. In Washington, they spent time with cousins, Veterinarian Dr. Dean and Psychiatrist Dr. Jean Goeldner, and quite a few others.      They also participated in a private family inauguration party, had a reunion with her brother Ralph Dunham, and enjoyed a tour of the Capitol building with her great nephew Ian Dunham.     

Virginia recalls how it felt watching her great nephew step out of his limousine during the Inaugural parade.     With Cecil at her side, the two watched the newly elected President make his way in the procession.  One couple amid nearly two million, they stood in that crowd, a sea of eminent blue, red and white plaid, cheering.     

"In those hours, weighted with so much patriotism, they walked freely and celebrated.  The political enthusiasm of Washington came at them in waves.  The parade rolled on, and it was, as Virginia, says,  a defining moment."       Experience is great, but you are not going to get a world record out of a 60 year old guy. "Being in his late forties, Barack is the right age and he is smart enough to surround himself with good people," Virginia and Cecil said.  "Seeing him become President was special to our family.  Not that many people get that kind of opportunity.  At the Mid-Western Ball, which followed the inauguration, the President and the First Lady made an appearance.   Cheryl Crow was the headliner," Virginia said. 

It was the first opportunity she had to give her great nephew a gift she had brought to Washington for him–a set of cherished family photos.     Arranged neatly in a flower designed photo album made of a soft, velvety black cloth, she had a second set of the pictures pinned to her clothing during the inauguration to represent deceased family members.        "That entire day was very moving for me," she said.  "When I saw Barack for the first time, I kissed my flower and said to the family: Can you believe this? Can you believe this?"     There were tears when she looked to those photos. 

She shows me the flower shaped photo album, which rests beside a table of other memorabilia saved, such as magazine covers, gifts from President Obama  half sister, Maya, and inauguration tickets, provided courtesy of her local Congressman, Vic Synder.       He states,  "I am pleased that my office was able to assist them in coming to witness a milestone in our nation  history and that we could be there to help them see their great nephew take the Oath of Office as President."     "While the congressman ensured the Goeldner  seating arrangements, another Senator,  Blanche Lincoln provided tickets for extended family in addition to hosting a breakfast for them in Washington.  They were all so helpful and kind," she says, grateful for their hospitality.    

The trip to Washington was one of the last moments Virginia had with her great nephew.   She is kept updated about family matters via Maya.      "Overall," as Dr. Rev. Conway, states,  "The Goeldners’ are very nice and I have enjoyed spending time with them."     He describes a rather beautiful prayer that Cecil wrote, noting his writing abilities.  One thing most people don’t know is that Cecil is a rather good armchair musician," Dr. Rev. Conway states.     

Cecil frequently plays small venues, where Virginia assists, when she is not working on the family genealogy in general.       "As Cecil and I discuss his music, he says to me,  There are only two kinds of music in this world: Country and Western."     The following lyrics are an excerpt from a song he wrote, entitled,  "You Never Even Told Me Goodbye," featured on a three-song compilation.  Other songs on the record, include,  "A Million Tears" and  "Hard Time."      "You Never Told Me Goodbye"     "Storm clouds hang low and rain keeps falling  Since you’ve gone the sun never shines  And my poor broken heart to you keeps calling  But all I hear are empty echoes back in time.     My life came to an end the day we parted  When all the love you promised turned to lies  The worst of all about being broken hearted  Is that you never even told me goodbye.  No, you never even told me good-bye."