Strict Private School Prepped Romney To 'Aim High'
From now until November, President Barack Obama and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney will emphasize their differences. But the two men's lives actually coincide in a striking number of ways. In this installment of NPR's "Parallel Lives" series, a look at Romney's time at Cranbrook, an all-boys prep school in Michigan.
Cranbrook has been coed since the mid-1980s, its overall diversity is quite evident and the dress code is casual. None of that was true when Mitt Romney, class of 1965, was a student there.
"Very traditional school. It was modeled after an English public school, which of course means a private school," says Mark Hendrickson, one of Romney's classmates.
It's a private school in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., one of the wealthiest communities in the country. Hendrickson, who now teaches at a small college in Western Pennsylvania, was there on scholarship. He lived in the same dormitory as Romney.
"The first bell would ring at 7 a.m. There was a bell at 7:10 to make sure you were out of the sack. There was a warning bell at 7:25, and at 7:30, you had to be at your place in the dining hall," he says.
Ann Arbor attorney Bill Schlecte graduated with Romney in '65.
"You lived by the bell ... Everybody had to wear coats and ties for breakfast, lunch and dinner, for classes," he says.
After the school day came extra-curricular activities — sports, intramurals — then coats and ties back on for dinner. After dinner, recalls Ted Lowrie, a retired financial services executive, there was evening study.
"By 9:30, study halls were over. You had half an hour to just grab a snack or sit around and talk with other guys," he says. "Then 10 o'clock, [for] the underclassmen, lights were out. And then you did it all over again the next day."
Cranbrook School for Boys was founded in 1927. Its Arts and Crafts-style buildings sit on a beautiful 319-acre campus. Famous graduates include brigadier general and Heisman Trophy-winner Pete Dawkins, Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Micro Systems, writers Michael Kinsley and Ward Just, and Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame.
Romney classmate Hendrickson leafs through their yearbook. Both were members of the Blue Key Club, a group that would escort people around the campus. Romney is also pictured with the Glee Club, the cross-country team and in something called the Speculator's Club. He's all over the yearbook.
Romney's future wife, Ann Davies, was a student at Kingswood, the all-girls school located on the grounds.
When Romney first arrived on campus, his father George was the chairman of American Motors Corporation, then one of Detroit's big four auto companies. But having such a prominent dad wasn't unusual at Cranbrook. George Romney became governor during Mitt's sophomore year.
"You never saw Mitt and said, 'That's the governor's son.' He was one of the guys, quite honestly," says former classmate Ted Lowrie.
Romney was known as an active Republican, but Schlecte — who was a friend of his and who describes himself as a strong supporter of President Obama — says Cranbrook was absolutely not a bastion of conservatism.
"Not in the least. It was strictly the classes, whether you were taking Latin or French or German or Spanish, History, English, whatever it may be ... No, the conversation was not political at all," he says.
Romney did have a reputation as a prankster. One particular alleged incident got a lot of attention last May when The Washington Post reported that Romney led a group of boys who forcefully held down a student and cut off his hair. That student was assumed to be gay. Romney said he didn't recall the incident, but he did apologize for any pranks he'd been involved in that "might have gone too far."
Today, Cranbrook officials have no comment on the bullying story, but teacher David Watson brought it up when interviewed by NPR in the hallways of the school recently. He's the faculty adviser to the student newspaper, which ran an editorial in June about the Post story. The students headlined their piece, "It's Not the Media's Cranbrook."
"But they talk about really how the kind of pranks and bullying that were described in the article were a part of the time, not just something that was characteristic of this individual," Watson says, "and they wanted people to know what the school was like now."
The editorial stressed that the culture of prep schools from back then is very different from today.
At Cranbrook, you can still hear an all-boys choir sing the school song, sounding much like choirs from when this was Romney's world. Included in the lyric is the school's motto, "Aim High."
"They equipped us with an education. They gave us the potential to achieve considerable accomplishments, and he did that," Hendrickson says. "He aimed high, he worked hard, he took advantage of the education he was given, he furthered it."
Hendrickson says he will be voting for his former classmate in November.
NPR's Martin Kaste reported on Obama's time at an elite Hawaii prep school on Weekend Edition Saturday.
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