The largest chasm of all at Cranbrook was between the boarders and the “day boys.” Students within the limits of Detroit’s Eight Mile Road had the option to attend the school without boarding. The requirements for enrollment as a day student were generally tougher, leading day boys to consider themselves academically superior. Day boys also had the freedom to leave campus when school let out late in the afternoon. Often those with cars would gas up at nearby service stations, cruise Woodward Avenue and plot “how and where we could get some beer,” said Gregg Dearth, who went by the nickname Daiquiri Dearth. Drugs were generally unheard of, but day boy parties often included someone downing beers or toting bottles of scotch.
Romney began his Cranbrook career as a day boy and quickly adapted to the school’s unofficial code. He was prohibited by his religion from drinking alcohol but excelled at elaborate practical jokes.
During spring break of his senior year, when most of his friends went to Florida for vacation, Romney stayed behind to make movies for an upcoming Cranbrook talent show. For one, he filmed his friends Stu White and Judy Sherman seated at a table to dine on fine china on a Woodward Avenue median as their friend Pike John, now deceased, acted as the waiter. Romney filmed the luncheon until a police officer pulled up. “And that was it,” Sherman said.
But in a well-known prank in which Romney flashed a police siren and, bearing a fake badge and cap, approached two friends and their dates parked on a dark country road, there was a stronger undercurrent of fear to the incident than commonly conveyed. Candy Porter, a Kingswood boarder from a small town in Ohio, had a strict 11 p.m. curfew. As Romney and his Cranbrook pals played out the joke, pretending to be shocked over empty bourbon bottles in the trunk, Porter thought of the dorm mothers waiting at the door and the threat of expulsion. “I just remember being like a deer in headlights,” she said. “I just remember being terrified.” Once she realized it was all a prank, and was safely back at her dorm, Porter joined in the laughter.
Romney’s sense of humor ran through his family.
Sherman, a friend of the Romneys from high school, recalled Ann telling her about the time Romney and his older brother, Scott, dressed up in white coats and wheeled a gurney up to the Birmingham train station to meet their aunt. When she got off the train, they rushed her away as if to a madhouse.
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, named after the school’s first headmaster. 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.”
Romney breathed Cranbrook day and night.
He met the Kingswood girls at the Get Acquainted Dance in the school gym. There was the Chateau de Noel girl-ask-boy dance at Christmas, and the World A-Fair, in which students dressed up in the garb of other nations. He sang in the Glee Club and started the Blue Key Club, an organization of students who “know the campus and Cranbrook traditions well” and served as ambassador to parents and prospective students. The school newspaper noted that his “diligent and capable leadership” of the homecoming weekend, where he delivered a “brilliantly hilarious monologue,” earned him a citation reserved for “students whose contributions to school life are often not fully recognized through already existing channels.” He was co-chairman of the Speculators Club and played a leading role in the American Field Service, which helped bring foreign students to the campus. He also served a leadership role on a student cabinet organization and during his senior year took a bus with some Kingswood girls to volunteer at the nearby state mental hospital. There, he danced to spinning 45s and talked and ate chips with the young patients.
“His altruism was apparent then and is apparent now,” said Candy Porter, who volunteered with Romney at the hospital. “I just remember him being really nice,” said Mary Fisher.
Romney also found time to contribute to the school paper as a special correspondent at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy. “Mitt Romney Comments on Kennedy Funeral,” read the front page headline on the Dec. 17, 1963, edition of the Crane. “Note: Personal comments and observations made by Mitt Romney in Washington, Nov. 25, 1963.”
“The old Washington theory of relativity, briefly: one is important only until a bigger brass appears, was blatently [sic] obvious for whenever before have we had the top potentates of the world here to outrank our dignitaries? We all recall the day when we saw a senator of the like in some big, black limosine [sic] drive through our town. Most likely our mouths were hanging wide open as our Mommies and Daddies told us the man out there was a very important person who worked in Washington.”
Even without extracurricular activities, Cranbrook demanded long days. The morning bell rang at 7 and breakfast was served in the dining hall at 7:30, coat and tie required. After breakfast, students returned to clean their rooms in anticipation of white-gloved senior prefects who scoured the bed frames for dust. After classes and study hall at 9:30, students could go beneath Stevens Hall to the school store, where the boys received letters, via an inter-school postal service, from the girls at Kingswood. Some were perfumed.
The letters Romney wrote were delivered to the Green Lobby in Kingswood. Around 10:15 every morning, the girls, all wearing saddle shoes, hoped to hear their names called amid walls of rich green tile, and banisters, benches and clocks all in the art deco style.
“The person who wrote the most consistently was Mitt,” said Lyn Moon Shields, who dated Romney in the fall semester of 1964. Gentlemanly and fun, Romney was her best date in her six years at school. He called every evening and picked her up in his powder blue Rambler and drove her up and down Woodward Avenue on weekends, and to school dances where she wore blue-green formal dresses and he a dark suit and tie. “Things were so innocent,” she said. “We kissed each other, I think Mitt would admit to that.” One day, she said, Romney just stopped calling. He had taken an interest in a Kingswood sophomore. “They got intentional about their relationship very soon,” Shields said of Mitt and Ann.
Like every other student, Romney completed a rigorous workload that made most college requirements seem easy by comparison. Between the 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 served together as Cub Scouts, recalled Romney telling him. “He had gumption. He had his sights on what he wanted to achieve.”
The time after class was set aside for sports. Romney wore the Cranbrook “C” on his white tank top as 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 sideline, cheering the football team on as a member of the Pep Club, chanting such cheers into a megaphone as “Iron them out. Iron them out. Smooooth.”
He participated on the school’s hockey team as its manager, lugging a duffle bag full of pucks and sticks. Dressed in suit and tie and three-quarter coat, he rode the bus with the uniformed players and kept stats in the coach’s box at the cold outdoor rink. The team’s senior year began with promise, but ended badly. The players took out their frustration on the ice, getting into brawls with Lakeview and Catholic Central. During one fight, Maxwell pulled the jersey over the head of an opposing player and pummeled away. Romney dashed onto the ice, slipping and sliding in his Brogan wingtips in an apparent attempt to break up the fight.
During the winter of Romney’s sophomore year, the faculty assigned him and Maxwell to mop the floors of the academic halls, part of a World War II-era program meant to instill a work ethic in the students. During their six-week detail, the two old friends had long, rambling conversations about religion, and Maxwell pressed Romney on how he could believe in Mormonism.
As Maxwell later recalled their discussion, he asked Romney, “How can you believe that thing about the tablets?” referring to the divine gold tablets Mormons believe were discovered in New York and translated by Joseph Smith.
Romney, he said, responded, “What about the Virgin Birth and the Holy Trinity?”
“I don’t believe that, either,” Maxwell responded. The discussions ultimately came down to a faith vs. reason equation.
“You simply have to have faith,” Romney concluded.
“That’s a cop-out,” Maxwell said.
While there were seeds of Romney’s future devoutness at Cranbrook, he was then more interested in goofing off. In the evenings, he cut loose with Friedemann, a scholarship kid from the small town of Romeo, dubbed the Kraut. The two boys stayed up late, joking around and racing mops like racehorses up and down the hallway.
One regular in the Stevens Hall revelry was the school’s security guard, Chester. In police uniform, chubby and middle-aged, Chester would let Romney and Friedemann examine and play with his gun. In the student yearbook, Romney posed with his arm around Chester wearing thick black glasses, similar to those the guard wore, but also a ski hat and a silly Jerry Lewis expression. At the Swingin’ Sweeney Dance, Romney pointed a toy gun under his chin as two girls shook hands in front of him. A photo of the pose ran in the yearbook above the caption, “Give a guy enough rope and he’ll hang himself.”
Romney spent months trying to convert Friedemann, the son of New Deal-worshiping Democrats, to the Republican Party. He asked to meet his friend’s grandmother, so that he could convert her, too. “He talked politics all the time,” Friedemann said. “It was more big government versus small government. He was a business guy back then.”
Romney’s political and personal idol, George Romney, was never far away. Once Crawford Elder, a student a year behind Romney, saw the governor in the basement under Stevens Hall getting a haircut from Everett Arthurs, the school barber and part-time bartender at faculty cocktail parties. When Ev, as he was widely known, dropped dead after a round of golf, Gov. Romney eulogized him at a tree dedication ceremony on the quad, a few steps away from his son’s room.
* * *
After lights out, John Lauber often left his door open. Larry Olson and some other boarders would check for the hall monitor they called Sneaky Pete and slip into Lauber’s room. From there, they would crawl out his window, climb over the bushes and scurry off campus to Lone Pine Road, where a pizza truck regularly parked. Sated, they would climb back through the window and check on the bottles of apple juice that they hoped fermenting grapes would turn into hard cider. Then Lauber and his friends played poker until the early morning.
When Lauber’s younger sister, Betsy, visited the campus, she said she found him happy and sporting a preppy look. He took her to an off-campus party at a fellow student’s house where they danced to Motown records and laughed.
But he was always a bit different from the rest. During breaks from school, he worked as a mortician’s assistant. He spent more time devouring books than making friends in clubs.
“He was very quiet, not a jock,” said Steph Lady. “Very soft-spoken. I know nothing, 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 an overcast Saturday, David Craig, a senior prefect and day student, drove his car down Martell Drive along the school grounds and saw a figure duck into the hedges. He thought the person might be trespassing and stopped, only to find Lauber puffing on a cigarette. In a move that he said he later regretted as an excess of the “dorm trooper” mentality instilled by Cranbrook, Craig reported Lauber to the headmaster. Soon after, Lauber was expelled.
“He just disappeared,” Lady said.
Sudden disappearances at Cranbrook were not unheard of. Students might pass a dorm neighbor on the way to class and come back hours later, with all their belongings gone and their beds stripped by maintenance staff. Bad behavior and bad grades were not tolerated.
Ben Snyder, who as an assistant headmaster later spearheaded the school’s effort to recruit inner-city students, said Cranbrook in Romney’s time “had its standards and applied them briskly when needed.” As chairman of a group of faculty members and students who were in charge of discipline, he described a strict school in which offenders could be “dismissed, period.” Snyder could not recall dealing with any transgressions involving Romney. “I wouldn’t expect to see him,” Snyder said of the disciplinary tribunals. “The family was so straight, they don’t do those types of things.”
On June 12, 1965, Romney concluded his Cranbrook career at a commencement ceremony at the Christ Church, in which his father delivered a keynote address reported on by the local papers.
“This is a special occasion for us as a family,” George Romney told the gathered boys before emphasizing that religion and “the one girlfriend whom you finally take the greatest interest in” and good health habits were critical for a successful life. So, he said, was character. “Developing character is going to be more important than your education from now on.” The ceremony concluded with all the boys singing a final rendition of their school song, “Forty Years On.”
Forty years on, when afar and asunder
Parted are those who are singing today,
When you look back, and forgetfully wonder
What you were like in your work and your play,
Then, it may be, there will often come o’er you,
Glimpses of notes like the catch of a song –
Visions of boyhood shall float them before you,
Echoes of dreamland shall bear them along,
Follow up! Follow up! Follow up!
Forty years on, Mitt Romney accepted the school’s 2005 Distinguished Alumni Award.
A year earlier, John Joseph Lauber died at a Seattle hospital.
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 liked to wander and “had a glorious sense of the absurd,” according to his sister Betsy. When the chance to get out of Indiana presented itself, he jumped at it and enrolled at Cranbrook. He never uttered a word about Mitt Romney or the haircut incident to his sisters. After Cranbrook asked him to leave, he finished high school, attended the University of the Seven Seas for two semesters, then graduated in 1970 from Vanderbilt, where he majored 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 at home in South Bend, he checked into the Menninger Clinic psychiatric hospital in Topeka, Kan. Later he received his embalmer’s license, worked as a chef aboard big freighters and fishing trawlers, and cooked for civilian contractors during the war in Bosnia and then, a decade 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 there of liver cancer that December.
He kept his hair blond until he died, said his sister Chris. “He never stopped bleaching it.”
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story reported that White “has long been bothered” by the Lauber incident. White later clarified in a subsequent interview that he has been disturbed by the incident since he learned of it several weeks ago from a former classmate, before being contacted by The Washington Post.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Mitt Romney apologized for past pranks on Fox News Channel. The interview actually occurred on Fox News Radio. The text has been corrected.