There are boxes stacked in the front windows of Broadlawn, the weathered home of the president of tiny Hillsdale College. George Roche III is packing. In 28 years here, Roche made Hillsdale his school, his town, his platform for a national campaign for a return to conservative values and traditional education. He dined with Steve Forbes and courted William F. Buckley Jr. Now, he is leaving--with his name and the school's name tainted by an embarrassing sex scandal.
Barely more than a block away, police barricades obstruct the driveway of a college-owned stone cottage. Inside, George Roche IV--president's son, professor of history, father of George V--is in mourning. His best friend drives a truck around the barricades and emerges in a camouflage jacket, plate in hand. He enters without knocking. George IV rarely answers the door anymore.
Behind the cottage, through a wooden gate and down a set of stone stairs, is a clearing called Slayton Arboretum. It is surrounded by a low wall and holds a gazebo. This is where Lissa Roche went on Oct. 17, shotgun in her hand, and ended her life. She was George IV's wife and George III's daughter-in-law, and according to the words she spoke to family members only hours before her death, she was the lover of both of them for nearly two decades.
This sordid tale has rocked not only this college of 1,100 students, but also a nationwide conservative community that has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to Hillsdale and its leader, a man it saw as an educational pioneer who held the line against political correctness, multiculturalism and all the assorted ills of the left-leaning world of higher education.
It has been a week now since Roche III, 64, resigned after being confronted with--and denying--allegations of an affair with his daughter-in-law. The story only seems to get uglier as time passes.
According to William Bennett, the prominent conservative and, until Tuesday, head of Hillsdale's search committee for Roche's replacement, top administration officials now are quietly claiming that Lissa Roche, 41, was mentally unstable, and suggesting that George Roche III may not have had an affair with his daughter-in-law. Those claims have infuriated Bennett and many others on campus.
"A week ago, I was told it looked like [the allegations] were true," Bennett said today, a day after resigning from the search committee. "The first answer to my question was, exactly, 'Sure, it is [true].' Then, this week, I got 'Well, we're not sure.' Then it was 60/40. And now it's a lot of talk about Lissa being a pathological liar. And this is where I got off."
Bennett had harsh words for the White House during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He says now that he cannot abide a similar coverup at Hillsdale, no matter how he feels about the school's politics.
"This institution is the shadow of this man and the 30 years of accomplishments he's made," Bennett said. "But if this man fell short of his ideals and the ideals he was trying to impart, we need to know that so we can say, 'This was a terrible thing,' and then move on. You can't move on until you tell the story.
"There's a dead woman here," he continued. "There's a dead woman here. No, it is not over. Not until they tell us the truth."
'A Wonderful Dream'
Lissa Roche worshiped her father-in-law. Thanks to George III, she held important positions at the college, chief among them editor of Imprimis, the monthly journal to which well-known individuals such as Bennett, Forbes and Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) contributed. Her desk was in an office barely 30 feet from her father-in-law. She often spoke of the work she was doing by using the pronoun "we"--as in herself and George III.
"She said things that made you believe that she measured the worth of her life in terms of how well she served George," says Charles Van Eaton, a former Hillsdale professor and friend of Lissa's who now works at Pepperdine University in California. "Lissa was an incredible woman. She was talented, gifted, but also, I'm afraid, incredibly vulnerable."
Lissa met George IV when they were students at Hillsdale, and they married in 1978. They had one son, George V, a Hillsdale student who has been on leave this semester. Despite grumblings of nepotism by faculty members, both she and George IV went to work for the college.
Things started to unravel publicly last year when George III filed for divorce from his wife of 44 years, June Bernard Roche. She was then, and still is, suffering from liver cancer.
After the divorce became final in April, George III asked his son and daughter-in-law to move into Broadlawn. According to statements George IV made to friends at the college, school officials and the conservative magazine National Review (George IV only made brief comments for this article), Lissa was thrilled by the request. Shortly after, George III stunned both his family and the community by proposing marriage to another woman, Mary Hagan. They were wed on Sept. 13. George IV and Lissa moved out of Broadlawn to the cottage down the street.
A month later, George III suggested he was leaving his second wife, then reconciled with her, raising and dashing Lissa's hopes. According to what George IV later told Ronald Trowbridge, the college's vice president for external affairs, and National Review, Lissa confronted her father-in-law about what she termed a 19-year affair on the morning of Oct. 17. She and George IV were visiting George III at the hospital, where he was being treated for diabetes. Hagan, his new wife, also was present. Lissa had already been threatening suicide earlier that day. A few hours later, when George IV left her alone in their home for barely more than five minutes, she followed through on those threats, taking a shotgun from her husband's gun closet and proceeding to the arboretum. George IV found her body minutes later.
After a quick and quiet burial, George IV talked to "innumerable people," according to Trowbridge, about what had transpired before Lissa's death. George III and his new wife went off to Hawaii on a delayed honeymoon. That day, George IV called Robert Blackstone, then the provost, to make allegations against his father.
Trowbridge visited George IV that night and spent nearly three hours listening to his story. He left around 11 p.m. "I.V.," as George IV is known here, was "understandably distraught," according to Trowbridge. "When you've lost your wife . . . there were just a variety of emotions."
On Nov. 1, George III was suspended by the board of trustees pending an investigation. Nine days later, on Nov. 10, at a charged meeting of the board, George III resigned after declaring his innocence. Afterward, George III issued a statement that still stands as his only public words on the issue. In it, he does not mention Lissa, his son or any reason for his leaving.
"Together we have built a wonderful dream," he wrote. "We have proved that integrity, values and courage can still triumph in a corrupt world. Hillsdale is a monument to those beliefs."
Hero or Fiend?
"I was shocked, but not surprised," says Thomas Payne, a former Hillsdale professor, asked about his reaction to the scandal. More than a half-dozen current and former faculty members use the same phrasing to describe their initial feelings: shock, but no surprise.
"A cult leader masquerading as a college president," Payne calls Roche. Van Eaton, now at Pepperdine, prefers "a complete facade."
"He's a megalomaniac who was an autocrat and he wounded and hurt many people at Hillsdale College over the some three decades that I observed him," says English professor James Juroe, who is on leave from the college for health reasons. "I believe that his leaving Hillsdale College is a great blessing--unless, of course, the highest virtue and end of a college is to raise large amounts of money."
To many, though, Roche was a gifted leader. Not even his harshest of critics deny that he did incredible things for the school with his contacts and his incredible talent for fund-raising. When he arrived at Hillsdale in 1971, the college was, in the words of one former faculty member, "a middling hick school." Roche turned it into a nationally known institution, revered for its decision to reject all federal funding in the name of academic integrity and consequently supported by huge private donations. Influential leaders from both sides of the political spectrum came to speak either at the college or at the lecture series Roche established. Margaret Thatcher, Colin Powell, Buckley, Jesse Jackson--these are only some of the names Roche cultivated.
"I will give him credit for what he did," says history professor Kendall Brown, who left Hillsdale for Brigham Young University in 1991 after spending nine years there. "I think his apologists who point out what he did for the school--there is a certain validity to what it is they are saying. He raised lots of money. He raised the profile of the school."
But Brown goes on to describe Roche has "messianic," and to cite numerous examples in which good professors were run out. Many complain that he stifled free speech.
"I just had to get away from Hillsdale," Van Eaton says now. He remembers telling Lissa about his decision. She hugged him, and told him, "Chuck, to stay healthy a plant needs to be repotted now and then." The words haunt him now.
"I look back at that," he says, "and I can't help but wonder if she was thinking in the inner part of her spirit, 'I've got to get out of here, too.' "
'A Good School'
In the main administration building on campus, Ron Trowbridge tries to save the reputation of a college that, for decades, has been tightly bound to the reputation of its president.
"We can never know the truth," he says. Trowbridge has issued a statement today that says only two people know the truth here--one now dead, and one who has sworn "before God" that there is no truth to the allegations.
The statement in its original form also included this sentence: "It is to me entirely conceivable that George Roche is a condemned innocent man." It was that sentence that Bennett cited in his letter of resignation from the search committee.
"I felt I was being party to, and in fact a front man for, maybe not a coverup but a denial and refusal to find the truth," he says. Bennett says he cannot recommend that any conservative academic he respects accept the Hillsdale presidency.
This is perhaps the college's greatest fear: that George III's departure will leave a permanent stain on the college's reputation. Two of the first reporters on the scene were from the National Review and the Weekly Standard--conservative magazines that chose to take a hard look at one of their own.
"We've viewed negative press from major publications in the past not as a sobering look at ourselves, but rather, we turn around and use it to raise more money by saying, 'Look at what these great liberal press behemoths are doing to us,' " says Juroe. "But now we've received these blistering assessments from our friends. You can't set that aside."
Prof. John Reist, a pastor, answered his phone the other day to find one of his former students, a teacher, on the line with a plaintive plea:
"I've been telling my students that Hillsdale is a wonderful place, a good school, and they should apply there," the woman said. "What do I tell them now?"
"Tell them it's still a good place," Reist replied.
Julie Toomey, one of Reist's students, also is adamant. "I love this place," she says. But she, too, wants answers. After Roche's resignation, she attended the convocation the college held in the sports complex named for George III. She expected answers. She received none.
"I don't want details," she says early one evening this week, darkness falling across the campus. Across the hall, there is a sign that says "PRAY," in bold letters, with an announcement of another school-wide prayer session at the sports facility.
"I don't need details. But if there is a sin going on here, it should be addressed. There should be an apology. That's what we all said here about Clinton, and it seems like the same thing. Honesty. Just plain honesty. That's all I want."