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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.

(page 3 of 5)

From our September 1994 issue: Hillary Rodham, class of ‘65

From the beginning, Hillary was an academic star. “She could multiply and divide before most of us were adding,” Cobb says. “She always was a little bit ahead of everybody.” Especially when it came to her verbal dexterity. In elementary school, Hillary found an adroit conversationalist in Rick Ricketts. Persuasive yet witty from the linguistic boot camp that was the Rodham household, Hillary often adopted a contrary view to hike the intellectual stakes. ‘’You could tell by looking in Hillary’s eyes if she’s having fun,” recalls Ricketts. ‘’There’s a spark, and you know that it’s an academic debate-it’s not personal.”

Hillary liked school-and teachers adored her. But she was more than a bookworm. The Rodhams made sure she could dance, swim, and thrive on the baseball diamond. In one widely reported family legend, Hillary endured daily batting and fielding practice at Hinkley Park, until she could smash a fastball and catch a pop fly. “When the other girls were jumping rope at recess, Hillary was playing softball with the boys,” says Jim Yrigoyen, now a guidance counselor at Lake Zurich High School.

Young Hillary-round of face, muscular of body-had short, dark blond hair, thick brown eyebrows, and a friendly smile with a developing overbite. She wore typical girl fashions-crisp blouses, pleated skirts, sailor dresses, bobby socks, saddle shoes. Her thick glasses obscured her big blue eyes. Even so, she was noticing boys, and they were noticing her. Yrigoyen gave Hillary his “dog tag"-the identification many Park Ridge children wore at the time-in the supreme act of preteen puppy love. But the romance ended abruptly. “We were running around in the snowdrifts, and I washed Hillary’s face in the wet snow,” he says. “I must have done it too hard and hurt her, because when I got to school the next day, I found my dog tag on my desk.” A year later, he would see an even tougher side of his first flame. Hillary had forgiven Yrigoyen enough to resume a polite friendship, and she enlisted his help in protecting some baby rabbits in her back yard from neighborhood boys who were trying to steal them. “She asked me to watch the rabbits while she went inside for a few minutes,” Yrigoyen recalls. “Well, one of the boys demanded a rabbit, and I succumbed to peer pressure, thinking Hillary didn’t know how many were there anyway. But when she returned, she counted the rabbits. ‘Were you a part of this?’ she asked. I confessed, and Hillary proceeded to punch me in the nose.”

Betsy Johnson Ebeling met Hillary in Mrs. King’s sixth-grade class. With mutual interests in Nancy Drew, Johnny Mathis, and Saturday matinees at the Pickwick Theater, they became fast friends-two good girls who excelled at everything they tried. . . almost. Their mothers signed them up for piano lessons with the eccentric Margaret-Lucy Lessard, who, in a move straight from The Music Man, went door to door, promising parents that she’d turn their kids into mini Mozarts. The lessons were given in Lessard’s living room, dark except for a tiny light near the piano. Nearby, her dead stuffed Pomeranians stared at them from a glass case. “Her [live] Pomeranian growled the whole time we were there,” Ebeling says. “We just wanted to get out of her house.” The two girls teamed up for a duet at the spring recital. “Hillary had the bass, and I had the top part for Marche Militaire,” Ebeling says. “But she didn’t change the notes-just the tempo. It would get really slow, then really fast. Our piano future was down the drain.”

* * *

By adolescence, the adult Hillary was starting to emerge. Then, as now, her intellect and focus both impressed and intimidated her peers. “In sixth grade, the biggest putdown girls had for each other was, ‘Oh, she’s so conceited,’” says Ebeling. “It took a while for people to understand that Hillary wasn’t conceited. She was just very self-confident. She was very comfortable with herself. She wasn’t afraid to go against the crowd over something she believed in.”

In the post-Sputnik era, President Kennedy aggressively promoted the national race into space, and Hillary decided she wanted to be an astronaut. She wrote to NASA for the educational requirements. “Girls need not apply,” the return letter said. Hillary has called NASA’s response “infuriating,” but as she told The Washington Post, “I later realized that I couldn’t have been an astronaut anyway, because I have such terrible eyesight.”

Hillary became a tireless volunteer, organizing a baby-sitting brigade for the children of migrant workers in Des Plaines and hosting variety shows at local senior centers. Even her fun had an element of self-discipline. A competent tennis player in search of a partner, Hillary drafted a “contract” that spelled out the terms for her to teach Ebeling the game. “The agreement was something like, Hillary would give me so many tennis lessons, and I would try [to practice],” Ebeling says. “It probably was her first legal experience.”

Hillary’s friends say that she was interested in boys, but not “boy crazy,” as Ebeling puts it. “She had a crush on Don Wasley, the cutest boy in the eighth grade,” Ebeling says. “He had blond hair, blue eyes. But he moved away before high school, and no one knows what happened to him. During the [Presidential] campaign, I joked that I was going to wear a T-shirt that said, WHERE’S DON WASLEY?”

Jim Yrigoyen was out as her boyfriend, but he recalls that she stepped in when he was having problems in junior high. “One day, as we got off the bus and started walking home, Hillary said, ‘I think you’re a nice person, and I’m concerned about your missing school and getting detentions,’” Yrigoyen says. “She didn’t pry; she just said what was on her mind in a very caring, sensitive way. It was the right comment at the right time. It really helped me turn things around.”

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