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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 4 of 5)

Until she was 13, Hillary’s intellectual life centered on home, school, and church, places that nurtured conservative ideas about the world. But in 1961, she met Don Jones, a newly ordained and happily existentialist youth minister at First United Methodist. She sat in the front pew, as Jones recalls, and “seemed to be on a quest for transcendence.” By the time Jones left in 1963, to begin doctoral studies back east, Hillary had blossomed into an ardent social activist. “He just was relentless in telling us that to be a Christian did not just mean you were concerned about your own personal salvation,” she once told Newsweek.

Jones called his youth group “The University of Life,” and he exposed it to a series of educational and social-action programs in which he used pop culture to teach theology and social responsibility. He introduced Hillary and her friends to the poetry of e. e. cummings, the music of Bob Dylan, the Christian symbolism of van Gogh’s Starry Night, the bittersweet films of FranÁois Truffaut. “Don presented the material in a very thoughtful way and on a level that was very comfortable to us,” Ricketts says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, you kids have been sheltered.’ It was like, ‘Hey, have you ever read Catcher in the Rye? What do you think motivated Holden Caulfield to behave the way he did? Why was he so angry?’ We’d talk about how it related to Methodism. Don could tie all those things together.”

Once, Jones debated an atheist on the existence of God; another time, he led a discussion about teen pregnancy. This was heady stuff for the young Methodists of First United, who’d heard only the gospel of “be nice” from the church’s traditional ministers. “In suburban Park Ridge, you never would have known that a great social revolution was going on,” says Jones, now professor of social ethics and chairman of the religion department at Drew University in New Jersey. “Preachers didn’t deal with social injustices like segregation and racial discrimination. ”

Jones organized trips to a youth center on the South Side of Chicago, where the students met black and Latino teens. In April 1962, he took the group to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., speak at Orchestra Hall. King’s provocative address-"Remaining Awake Through a Revolution"-seemed scripted for the sheltered youngsters. “While I can’t say what [the experience] meant to Hillary back then, when I visited her in Little Rock in 1984, she reminded me that I took them backstage to meet Dr. King, and she said it meant a lot to her,” Jones recalls.

Hillary would often drop by Jones’s office after school to discuss the Bible or politics. “She loved to have her mind stretched, and she loved to read difficult material,” says Jones, who introduced her to the writings of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. “When Hillary was 14, I gave her a copy of[J. D.] Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. She probably didn’t completely understand it or couldn’t, because she came from such a wholesome family. She wrote me a letter from Wellesley that said, ‘I reread Catcher in the Rye. I didn’t like it when I first read it, but now I do.’ I still have that letter. The mere fact I saved every letter Hillary ever wrote to me indicates there was something special about her.”

* * *

Hillary entered Maine East High School in 1961. By 1964, the student body had outgrown the facility and Maine East split; all students, including Hillary, who lived south of Oakton Street transferred to the new Maine South, a sprawling campus with a picturesque pond out front, located just a few miles away. To see Hillary in action as First Lady is to observe the mature Hillary Diane Rodham as she campaigned in the halls of Maine East and Maine South for herself, for Barry Goldwater, for whatever cause she deemed just. “Hillary today is just like she was 30 years ago,” says Timothy Sheldon, who beat her in the race for student council president when they were juniors and who today is an associate judge in Kane County. Paul Carlson, a history teacher at Maine East, recalls that she wrote a 75-page term paper for his world civilization course when she was a freshman. “Hillary cut a very singular figure for herself,” he says; “She led in class discussions, and she wasn’t afraid to give her point of view in a very strong voice.” He adds, “She spoke in a very clipped way. Her sentences were cut off at the period. Bing, bing, bing.” (Carlson, an avowed conservative, says he was “crushed” seven or eight years later when he saw her on Irv Kupcinet’s TV show dressed as a hippie and spouting leftist ideology.)

She led an active social life-parties, sock hops, and basketball games with a coed crowd, high achievers all. They didn’t drink. Or smoke. Or stay out late. Or have sex. Or if they did, they didn’t dish details. Sex was a major topic, though purely in the abstract. Hillary had dates for homecoming dances and proms, but never a steady boyfriend. Her girlfriends claim she was too busy for full-time romance. Her male friends give a more mixed assessment. One classmate, who admits that his pulse still races when he sees Hillary on TV, thinks she was too picky. “A lot of us had crushes on Hillary, but she seemed unattainable,” he says wistfully. “She wouldn’t pay any attention to me or anyone else. One year, a wrestler from Morton Grove announced he was going to make Hillary Rodham his sexual conquest. We laughed, because we knew it would never happen.”

But other male classmates say Hillary’s plain looks discouraged romance. She had an average figure and thick legs; she wore unflattering purple glasses and unfashionable sack dresses. “Hillary wasn’t considered a great catch,” a friend admits. (Like others quoted anonymously, he doesn’t want his name attached to any critical comments about Hillary.) “Guys didn’t think she was attractive,” he continues. “They liked girls who were ‘girlish.’ Hillary was ‘womanish.’ She is far more attractive today than she was in high school.”

But Hillary apparently cared enough about her image to pay attention when it mattered. In yearbook photographs, it almost seems as if Hillary knew she was posing for posterity: Hair styled in a Marlon Thomas flip, she bears little resemblance to the deliberately dowdy teenager classmates describe. In tailored ensembles, she looks more sophisticated than the tight-sweatered girls around her. (Hillary’s grooming would remain an afterthought for her for years. At Wellesley, she became a disheveled hippie, and in Arkansas, she turned frumpy, hiding her highlight-craving brown hair beneath headbands, wearing matronly clothes, and eschewing contact lenses for enormous glasses.)

“While we were preoccupied with boys, hair, nails, makeup, and the telephone, Hillary was trying to fix problems or make things better,” says Jeanie Snodgrass Almo, who owns and operates child-care centers in Washington, D.C. “She had such a great self-worth that she didn’t get preoccupied with those other more frivolous, traditionally adolescent issues. She seemed to have an inner peace.”

Hillary loved being on stage, though her performing talent was limited to acting. She was so tone-deaf that Hal Chastain, the late drama teacher, politely urged her to mouth the words to the opening song from Bye Bye Birdie, which she and her friends performed in Maine East’s. 1963 Variety Show. “He joked that we were unquestionably the worst act, but since we were such a large group, he was afraid if he kicked us out, it would diminish ticket sales,” Ricketts says. But in 1965, Hillary drew rave reviews as Carrie Nation in a skit about temperance. As four girls behind her pretended to chug liquor, Hillary stood center stage, clutching her throat and railing against the evils of alcohol. “She was a real ham,” recalls Ellen Press Murdoch, the show’s codirector. “We thought it was terribly funny.”


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