Men who attended an elite prep school with the presidential hopeful say he was gregarious and popular but also targeted the less fortunate at times.
BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. —
Mitt Romney returned from spring break in 1965 to resume his studies at the prestigious Cranbrook Schools. The high-school senior spotted something he thought did not belong at a school where the boys wore ties and carried briefcases. John Lauber, a soft-spoken new student one year behind Romney, was perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality. He now had bleached-blond hair that draped over one eye, and Romney wasn’t having it.
“He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” an incensed Romney told Matthew Friedemann, a close friend, according to Friedemann’s recollection. Romney, the teenage son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, kept complaining about Lauber’s look, Friedemann recalled.
Days later, Friedemann found Romney marching out of his dorm room ahead of a prep-school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with scissors.
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The incident was recalled similarly by five students who gave their accounts independently. Four of them — Friedemann, now a dentist; Phillip Maxwell, a lawyer; Thomas Buford, a retired prosecutor; and David Seed, a retired principal — spoke on the record. Another witness asked not to be named.
The men have differing political affiliations, although they mostly lean Democratic. Buford volunteered for Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008. Seed, a registered independent, has been a Republican county chairman in Michigan. All said politics in no way colored their recollections.
“It happened very quickly, and to this day it troubles me,” said Buford, the school’s wrestling champion, who said he helped restrain Lauber. Buford subsequently apologized to Lauber, who was “terrified,” he said. “What a senseless, stupid, idiotic thing to do.”
“It was a hack job,” recalled Maxwell, a childhood friend of Romney’s. . “It was vicious.”
“He was just easy pickins,” said Friedemann, then the student leader of Stevens Hall, expressing remorse about his failure to stop it.
Friedemann said Romney led his cheering schoolmates back to his room after the incident. Guilt-ridden, Friedemann waited to see what form of discipline would befall Romney. Nothing happened.
Lauber seemed to disappear after the incident. He returned days later with his shortened hair back to its natural brown. He ultimately left the school before graduation — thrown out for smoking a cigarette.
In the mid-1990s, David Seed noticed a familiar face at the end of a bar at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
“Hey, you’re John Lauber,” Seed recalled saying. Seed had gone on to a career as a teacher and principal. He now had something to get off his chest.
“I’m sorry that I didn’t do more to help in the situation,” he said.
Lauber paused, then responded, “It was horrible.” He explained how frightened he was, and acknowledged to Seed, “It’s something I have thought about a lot since then.”
Lauber died in 2004 at Northwest Hospital in Seattle.
Prankster with an edge
Romney came of age during six years at Cranbrook. Wherever the action was, so was Romney. He wrote the most letters to the girls at the sister school and successfully petitioned for placement in the top classes. He was not a natural athlete, but found his place among the jocks by managing the hockey team and leading megaphone cheers for the football team.
Although a devout Mormon, he was less defined by his faith than at any other time in his life. He was a member of 11 organizations, including the Spectator’s Club and the homecoming committee, and started the school’s booster outfit, the Blue Key Club.
It was at Cranbrook where he first lived on his own, found his future wife and made his decisions. “He strongly bought in to community service,” said Richard Moon, a schoolmate. “That hard work was its own reward.” What is less visible today is what was most apparent to his prep-school peers: his jocularity.
“There’s a wild and crazy man inside of there just waiting to come out,” Romney’s wife, Ann — a graduate of Cranbrook’s sister school, Kingswood — attested this month. Many of Romney’s high-school peers echo that version of the candidate, describing him as the humble son of an automobile executive-turned-governor who volunteered at the nearby mental hospital. They recall an infectious laugh.
But Friedemann and several people closest to Romney in those formative years say there also was a sharp edge to him. In an English class, Gary Hummel, a closeted gay at the time, recalled his efforts to speak in class were punctuated with Romney shouting, “Atta girl!” That was not entirely out of the norm at the time. Hummel recalled some teachers using similar language.
Teachers also were targets.
One venerable English teacher, Carl Wonnberger, nicknamed “the Bat” for his diminished eyesight, was known to walk into the trophy case and apologize, step into wastepaper baskets and stare blindly as students slipped out the back of the room to smoke. Once, several students remembered, pranksters propped up the rear axle of his Volkswagen Beetle with two-by-fours and watched, laughing, as the unwitting teacher slammed the gas pedal, wheels spinning.
As an underclassman, Romney accompanied Wonnberger and Pierce Getsinger, another student, to the library. According to Getsinger, Romney opened a first set of doors for Wonnberger, but then at the next set, he swept his hand forward, bidding the teacher into a closed door. Wonnberger walked right into it, and Getsinger said Romney giggled hysterically.
“I always enjoyed his pranks,” said Stu White, a popular friend of Romney’s who went on to a career as a public-school teacher and has long been bothered by the Lauber incident. “But I was not the brunt of any of his pranks.”
In later years, after Romney went on a Mormon mission, married and reared five sons, he seemed a different person to some old classmates. “Mitt began to change as a person when he met Ann Davies. … She was part of the process of him maturing and becoming more of the person he is today,” said Jim Bailey, a classmate at Cranbrook and later at Harvard.
Mitt Romney enrolled at Cranbrook in 1959 as a 12-year-old seventh-grader.
The school mostly broke down along the usual lines of jocks and brains, popular kids and introverts.
Some students admired Romney, saying he did not trade on his father’s status as an auto executive and governor. Romney even came in for teasing because American Motors, the company his father ran, was considered below General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.
“Boys in a boys’ school can tease and make fun of almost anything,” said Bailey. The children of other auto executives would taunt Romney for the Ramblers he and his father drove.
Others noticed a distance between themselves and Romney. “I was a scholarship student, and he was the son of the governor,” said Lance Leithauser, now a doctor. “There was a bit of a gulf.”
Even a pal such as Friedemann felt that distance; their friendship was confined to the dorms. When Romney left campus on weekends, he never invited him. “I didn’t quite fit into the social circle. I didn’t have a car when I was 16,” Friedemann said. “I couldn’t go skiing or whatever they did.”
Lou Vierling, a scholarship student who boarded at Cranbrook for the 1960 and 1961 academic years, was struck by a question Romney asked when they first met. “He wanted to know what my father did for a living,” Vierling recalled. “He wanted to know if my mother worked. He wanted to know what town I lived in.” As Vierling explained that his father taught school, that he commuted from east Detroit, he said he noticed a souring of Romney’s demeanor.
The largest chasm of all was between boarders and “day boys.” Students within the limits of Detroit’s Eight Mile Road had the option to attend the school without boarding. Requirements for a day student generally were tougher, leading day boys to consider themselves academically superior. Day boys also had the freedom to leave campus when school let out. Those with cars often would gas up and plot “how and where we could get some beer,” said Gregg Dearth.
Romney began his Cranbrook career as a day boy and quickly adapted to the unofficial code. He was prohibited by religion from drinking alcohol but excelled at practical jokes.
By the time Romney started dating Ann in his senior year, he had immersed himself into the Cranbrook culture. In 1962, when his father won the governorship and his parents moved to Lansing, he entered the boarding life as a resident of Stevens Hall. From the inside, Cranbrook was an entirely different place.
“The day students,” said Steph Lady, a boarder and now a screenwriter in Hollywood, “it was like they didn’t even go there.”
Like every other student, Romney completed a rigorous workload that made most college requirements seem easy. Between seventh and eighth grades, the faculty selected a dozen or so students to enter an advanced-placement program. Romney at first was not among the chosen, and he objected. “He went into the headmaster and convinced him that ‘I should be in this,’ ” John French, who had been friends with Romney since they were Cub Scouts, recalled Romney telling him. “He had gumption. He had his sights on what he wanted to achieve.”
Romney was not a natural athlete, according to classmates. He was a cross-country runner, but the greatest impression he made in that pursuit was collapsing near the finish line during a meet — although his perseverance won him admiration and applause. He was more at home on the sidelines, cheering the football team on as a member of the Pep Club.
After lights out, John Lauber often left his door open. Larry Olson and other boarders would slip into Lauber’s room. From there, they would crawl out his window and scurry off campus to Lone Pine Road, where a pizza truck regularly parked. Lauber and his friends then played poker until morning.
When the youngest of Lauber’s three sisters, Betsy, visited the campus, she said she found him happy and sporting a preppy look. But he always was a bit different. He worked as a mortician’s assistant and spent more time devouring books than making friends.
“He was very quiet, not a jock,” Steph Lady said. “Very soft-spoken. … probably gay, but who knows. We were so stupid and naive. I know there was homosexuality there, but we didn’t even have a word for it. And there was homophobia then, too.”
On a Saturday, David Craig drove his car along the school grounds and saw a figure duck into the hedges. He found Lauber puffing a cigarette. In a move he said he later regretted, Craig reported Lauber to the headmaster. Lauber soon was expelled.
“He just disappeared,” Lady said.
On June 12, 1965, Romney concluded his Cranbrook career at a commencement ceremony, where his father gave a keynote address.
Forty years later, Mitt Romney accepted the school’s 2005 Distinguished Alumni Award.
A year earlier, John Joseph Lauber had died.
The boy few at Cranbrook knew or remember was born in Chicago, grew up in South Bend, Ind., and had a hard time fitting in. He “had a glorious sense of the absurd,” according to his sister Betsy.
Presented a chance to leave Indiana, he jumped at it and enrolled at Cranbrook. He never uttered a word about Mitt Romney or the haircut incident to his sisters. After he left Cranbrook, he finished high school, attended the University of the Seven Seas for two semesters, then graduated in 1970 from Vanderbilt, majoring in English.
He came out as gay to his family and close friends and led a vagabond life, taking dressage lessons in England and touring with the Royal Lipizzaner Stallion riders.
After an extreme fit of temper in front of his mother and sister, he checked into a psychiatric hospital. He later received his embalmer’s license, worked as a chef aboard big freighters and cooked for civilian contractors during the war in Bosnia and later, in Iraq.
His hair thinned as he aged, and in the winter of 2004 he returned to Seattle, the closest thing he had to a base. He died of liver cancer that December.
He kept his hair blond until he died, said his sister Chris. “He never stopped bleaching it.”
Washington Post researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.