I Was a Teenage Republican

Before she was a New York senator and a presidential hopeful, Hillary Rodham was a teenage Republican. Here’s our 1994 look at the girl who grew up in Park Ridge.

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From our September 1994 issue: Hillary Rodham, lower right, in sixth grade

Hillary Diane Rodham was born on October 26, 1947, the first child of Hugh and Dorothy Rodham, at Edgewater Hospital on the North Side. For three years, the family lived in a one-bedroom apartment at 5722 North Winthrop Avenue in Chicago. But when Hugh Jr. came along in 1950, the Rodhams moved to a three-bedroom, two-story brown-brick Georgian house in the stylish section of Park Ridge, a community so Wonder-bread wholesome that it could have inspired Leave It to Beaver. In interviews, Hillary often cites her upbringing as an explanation for her independent approach to life. Her parents, she has repeatedly said, taught her to believe in herself, ignore criticisms, and always work hard.

Hugh Rodham, who died last year at 82, was a barrel-chested authoritarian with a booming voice and caustic wit. He chewed tobacco, voted Republican, drove Cadillacs, and advocated “learning for earning’s sake.” Raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the son of English immigrants, Rodham won a football scholarship to Penn State University and majored in physical education. He took a job at the Scranton Lace Works Company, but wound up selling curtains in Chicago at the Columbia Lace Company, meeting his future wife when she applied for a secretarial job there. They exchanged letters during World War Il-Rodham’s degree qualified him to train sailors in the navy’s physical fitness program-and were married upon his return in 1942. Rodham soon opened a textile business that made custom draperies for corporations, hotels, and airlines.

“Big Hugh’s presence really filled a room,” recalls Betsy Johnson Ebeling, Hillary’s confidante since sixth grade and today a mother of three in Arlington Heights. “He was a curmudgeon, exasperating and exhilarating all in the course of one evening. At dinner, he’d offer an opinion and wait for everybody to stomp on it. Hugh taught Hillary not to be afraid to speak her opinions.”

Dorothy Howell Rodham, an amiable woman of Welsh and Canadian descent, was born in Chicago, but grew up in Alhambra, California. In many ways, she epitomized the traditional cookie-baking, churchgoing, car-pooling, stay-at-home suburban mom of the 1950s. But Dorothy wanted more for herself-and for Hillary. Once her children were in school, Dorothy, who had not gone to college, enrolled at Oakton Community College to “study whatever interested her,” Ebeling says. “She was the first mother I knew who went back to school.”

Indeed, Dorothy espoused feminist principles long before The Feminine Mystique inspired consciousness-raising in the early 1960s. “I never saw any difference in gender, as far as capabilities or aspirations were concerned,” she explained to The Washington Post a few years ago. “Just because [Hillary] was a girl didn’t mean she should be limited.” Says Judy Price Osgood, one of six girlhood friends Hillary invited to spend the night at the White House last summer, “Mrs. Rodham is very much responsible for what Hillary has accomplished. When she told Hillary she could be what she wanted to be and do what she wanted to do, it wasn’t just lip service.”

The Rodham house was tidy and tastefully decorated, with predictably beautiful curtains, stained-glass windows, antiques, and comfortable furniture. “The minute you walked in, you’d feel like you’d been there forever,” recalls Sandy Rasmussen Cobb, a classmate of Hillary’s from Eugene Field Elementary School in Park Ridge. “Hillary’s parents were really involved in their children’s lives. When I’d go over in the morning to pick Hillary up, her father would be helping them with their math homework in the kitchen. He’d quiz the boys on math problems, and Hillary would chime in, too.”

The “boys,” as they’re still called, are Hughie and Tony (born four years after Hughie). “They’re full of life, the type of people who always make you laugh,” says Ebeling. “If you’re going to have a party on Saturday night, you’d definitely want to have them over.” Neither brother seems reluctant to capitalize on Hillary’s fame. Today Hughie, a former public defender in Miami, is a contender for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in Florida. (The Clintons have not campaigned on Hughie’s behalf, and as of press time had no plans to do so, according to Neel Lattimore, deputy press secretary to the First Lady.) Tony, a private investigator who became a field director for the Democratic National Committee in Washington after Bill Clinton’s election, recently married Nicole Boxer, daughter of California senator Barbara Boxer, in a White House ceremony.

At Maine South, the boys were known as fun-loving jocks. The Rodhams expected them to perform as well on the football field as Hillary did in the classroom, but their father seldom was impressed. “I got nothing to say to you,” Hugh Rodham reportedly groused after Hughie, the quarterback, completed 10 of 11 passes in his best game, “except you should have completed the other one.” Hillary faced the same tough standards. She’d bring home straight A’s, and Hugh would mutter, ‘’You must go to a pretty easy school.”

By all accounts, the Rodhams were a tight-knit, Hallmark-moment kind of family. They worshiped at the First United Methodist Church. They played pinochle, a card game of logic and shrewdness. And, as Hillary confessed during her command-performance news conference in April 1994, she learned to read stock tables on her father’s knee. Every summer, Hugh Rodham packed up the Cadillac and hauled the family to a cabin at the edge of Lake Iola, near Scranton. With no indoor plumbing and no running water, their stay was something of a rugged adventure for the boys and a nuisance for Hillary, who used to complain about it to Ebeling. On one trip, Hugh Rodham showed them the coal mine where he worked during the Depression, stressing the importance of a college education.

Though secure financially, the Rodhams didn’t spoil their children. Instead of doling out allowances for household chores, they urged Hillary and her brothers to earn their own money. “We used to have dandelion-pulling contests-a penny a dandelion,” Tony Rodham told People. “[But] after your errands, you’d walk in and say, ‘Gee, Dad, I could use another two or three dollars.’ He’d flop another potato on your dinner plate and say, ‘That’s your reward.’” In junior high, Hillary babysat, and in high school she coordinated children’s programs at South Park in Park Ridge.

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