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updated: 8/11/2014 8:06 PM

Great-uncle of Obama dies at age 89

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  • Associated Press/July 22, 2008 Charles T. Payne was the brother of President Barack Obama's maternal grandmother, Madelyn Payne Dunham. Payne died in Chicago of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

      Associated Press/July 22, 2008 Charles T. Payne was the brother of President Barack Obama's maternal grandmother, Madelyn Payne Dunham. Payne died in Chicago of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

 
Associated Press

Charles T. Payne, a World War II veteran and great-uncle of President Barack Obama who was briefly in the public eye during his nephew's first presidential bid, has died.

Payne's wife of 50 years, Melanie Payne, said her husband died Aug. 1 in Chicago of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was 89.

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Payne, the brother of Obama's maternal grandmother, helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp during the war, and later became a pioneer in information technology at the University of Chicago. He retired at age 70 as assistant director of the university's library.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama mistakenly said his Uncle Charlie had helped liberate Auschwitz. Payne's infantry division liberated Ohrdruf, a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz as they marched across Poland in January 1945.

Payne told The Associated Press at the time that he was "truly astonished" by the attention paid to Obama's flub, and called his nephew "truly an astounding young man."

Payne minimized his role in the liberation of Ohrdruf, but described the horrors he saw there, including a circle of dead inmates in rags and clearly near starvation when they were killed.

"They were there with their tin cups like they were called to get food, then had been machine gunned," he told the AP. The survivors were "nothing but just skin over bones with nothing, no flesh at all."

After the war, Payne went to college in Kansas on the GI Bill and then to graduate school at the University of Chicago, where Obama later would lecture on constitutional law.

Melanie Payne said her husband was "very pleased and proud" to serve in two presidential delegations in recent years to commemorate World War II anniversaries.

Payne also is survived by a son, Richard.

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