PARK RIDGE, Ill. — Hillary Rodham was 16 when she first ran for president.
It was February 1964, her junior year of high school in this town of steeples and lawns on the rail line to Chicago. She was vice president of her class, and one of five students running to lead the student council for the next academic year. Student rock bands played in support of candidates in the hallways and cafeteria of Maine East High School.
“Stop mudslinging before it starts,” the school newspaper opined. “Keep this election clean!”
No girl had ever held the job before. “The boys would run for president, and the most popular girl would run for secretary,” says classmate Tim Sheldon, who was one of Hillary’s rivals and is now a retired judge in Elgin, Ill. Years later, in her memoir, Hillary recalled a boy telling her she was “really stupid” if she thought a girl could win.
But it was 1964, and she wasn’t even the only girl in the race. “It wasn’t acrimonious in any way,” says her female rival, Jackie Anderson Griesemer, who has fonder memories of the campaign and is now a retired speech and Bible teacher in Texas. “This was the ’60s before the ’60s got crazy. We just really enjoyed being together. It was a gentle time at Maine East.”
When Bill and Hillary Clinton emerged in the early 1990s as a national political force, they symbolized a generational shift. Photos of the future first couple from their university years — granny glasses, peacoats, shaggy hair — reinforced an image of the baby boomers ascending to power.
But the 1960s that formed Hillary Clinton were more “Happy Days” than “Easy Rider.” It still felt like the 1950s, in some ways. She may have burned with an ambition that would soon be recognized as feminist, but her politics and upbringing were conservative. She cheered for Republican firebrand Barry Goldwater that year over Democrat Lyndon Johnson.
Park Ridge was a world that hadn’t quite recognized how much it was changing, nor how much more lay ahead. It was still a place where no girl had been elected student council president — but it was becoming one where a girl knew that she could run.
Gas lamps still lined Main Street in the early 1960s. Elm trees arched above roads lined with old farmhouses, ranch-style residences and kit houses sold by Sears. Although they weren’t wealthy, the Rodhams lived in the country-club section of Park Ridge. Hillary had her own bedroom, with yellow walls, pink curtains, wood floors and a sun deck.
Her mother, Dorothy, was a homemaker and a closet liberal who taught Hillary never to run from a bully. Her father, Hugh, was a surly conservative who ran a small drapery manufacturing business — a rough guy who “swore, and said whatever came into his head,” recalls a neighbor, who first met Hillary when she was 7. He turned off the heat during winter nights to save money.
Hillary took piano lessons in sixth grade from a neighbor who kept her taxidermied Pomeranians in a glass case. In eighth grade, she learned to square dance, became a lifeguard, played plenty of table tennis.
Her family lived four blocks from their church, First United Methodist, a Tudor-style structure with stained glass. Dorothy taught Sunday school. Every night, Hillary and her younger brothers, Hughie and Tony, knelt by their beds to pray.
She and her friends didn’t meet Jewish peers until they started high school, in September 1961 — the same month that a young associate pastor named Don Jones motored into town in his red Chevy convertible.
“The Park Ridge Methodism that she had was: Be nice, don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t say dirty words, don’t pierce your ears and don’t be contaminated by the world outside,” recalled Jones, who died in 2009, in a 1992 interview with The Washington Post. “Park Ridge was a typical homogeneous cocoon.”
As youth program leader, Jones introduced his WASPy flock to the avant-garde poetry of E.E. Cummings, led a joint discussion of Picasso’s “Guernica” with a minority congregation downtown, and took Hillary and her friends to hear a talk by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Chicago Sunday Evening Club.
“I’d not gone to school with any black kids, I’d not gone to church with any black kids,” Clinton said in a 1993 interview with The Post. Jones’s influence “was just mind-blowing for me, and I just felt like there was this whole other world out there that was exciting and challenging that he linked to our faith.” (Clinton’s presidential campaign declined to comment for this article.)
During one youth meeting, Jones asked three teens to role-play a scenario of a daughter telling her parents that she was pregnant.
“I was exposing them to a kind of literature and theology that said that human life is pretty bleak,” Jones said. “And it’s filled with tragedy and alienation — and that once we realize that, we have the possibility of human flourishing.”
Hillary viewed Christianity as a mandate to respond to social needs, according to Rosalie Bentzinger, who was then the church’s director of Christian education.
“It was apparent from her youth that was she was going to be a person who cared about other people,” says Bentzinger, now 92 and living in Iowa, “and that she was an activist.”
At the moment, though, Hillary was focused on student governance.
At Maine East, where 82 percent of graduates were college-bound, she was elected every year to class council. She was part of the cultural values committee, which recommended that girls be allowed to wear culottes.
In a school known as a crowded incubator of ambition and civic engagement, Hillary “was popular, she was intelligent, she was a good student,” recalls Tim Sheldon. “The girls really didn’t have sports to participate in, [so] girls like Hillary spent their time in extracurricular activities and working and studying.”
In 1964, in the second semester of their junior year, John Wayne and Sidney Poitier were on-screen at the Pickwick Theater, a 10-minute walk from the Rodham home. Park Ridge had just passed an anti-noise law to combat increasing jet traffic from nearby O’Hare Airport. Local newspapers listed addresses for the city’s 13 fallout shelters. Young Goldwater supporters were meeting at the home of Hillary’s best friend, Betsy Johnson.
And Hillary, aiming for the student council presidency, was eliminated on the first ballot. Jackie Anderson, the other female candidate, advanced to the next round, and Sheldon ultimately won. Hillary liked being in charge, so she was crestfallen. Briefly.
“We were pretty upset,” says Ernest Ricketts, who met Hillary in kindergarten and is now a retired restaurateur in Oak Brook, Ill. “Hillary isn’t one to dwell on the negative. ‘Onward and upward,’ you know.”
She got a second chance at victory toward the end of the semester. Hillary and classmate Howard Primer faced off as Goldwater and Lyndon B. Johnson, respectively, in a mock debate in front of the student body. The pair spent weeks preparing — scouring newspapers for dispatches from the outside world, gabbing about Vietnam and civil rights with other students at a rib joint named Booby’s, and organizing research at the Rodhams’ house.
After the debate, the students voted. Hillary lacked the charisma to win the contest for student council president, Primer remembers, but she had the intellect to win a battle of ideas.
“She was the brightest person I ever knew, and I still believe that,” says Primer, now an entrepreneur in Charlotte. “The mood of the country was hostile to Barry Goldwater . . . but in our school Goldwater won big. So Hillary trounced me.”
At semester’s end, Hillary put her hair in an updo for her first television appearance, on Channel 11’s talk show “Our 2 Cents Worth,” along with fellow members of the cultural values committee. The topic was polarization between cliques in high school — “greasers” vs. jocks and preppies — and how to foster mutual respect.
That summer of ’64, Hillary helped write the student constitution for the new Maine South High School, where she and half her classmates would relocate for senior year. The committee wanted to choose “the rebels” as the school mascot, but administrators didn’t like the nonconformist connotation. The compromise was “the hawks.”
When the class of ’65 started their final year of high school on Sept. 8, 1964, the gym and theater were still under construction at Maine South. The cafeteria didn’t have real silverware yet. For the first few weeks, 2,500 students were continually getting lost in the new school’s sprawling maze of crowded corridors.
By autumn, Park Ridge kids were washing cars to raise money for Goldwater. But for a classroom debate, a young teacher named Gerald Baker tasked Hillary — chairman of the school’s Republican organization — with arguing for Lyndon B. Johnson. Likewise, a classmate who was a fervent Democrat was assigned to defend Goldwater.
“We were both insulted and protested,” Hillary wrote later, “but Mr. Baker said this would force each of us to learn about issues from the other side.”
Later, Maine South hosted a schoolwide debate and mock election, in which the three issues were the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons and the expanding role of the federal government. Student teams argued each side at an assembly; Hillary was now back on her preferred Goldwater side. When 1,280 paper ballots were counted, Goldwater won 55 percent of the vote.
Four days later, the vote in Maine Township was starker — 58 percent for Goldwater, despite LBJ’s landslide in the rest of the country.
“We had not evolved enough to oppose our parents in 1964,” recalls Howard Primer, Hillary’s previous debate foil.
After the election, Hillary won Maine South’s first “good citizen” award, sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution. “The pretty blonde was selected for her citizenship qualities of dependability, service, leadership and patriotism,” reported the Park Ridge Advocate.
“She was always leagues ahead of me, at least in academics and focus,” says classmate Eileen Alonso Stratton, now an accountant in Oak Brook. “But I remember we were at a party one time, both of us, at somebody’s house. It was typical of a lot of the guys: They’re just acting up, or immature, whatever, and so she and I went in a laundry room and sat and talked. We both thought it was dumb, this party.”
In December Hillary became co-chairman of an anti-vandalism committee, which allotted $300 to scrub graffiti from the school’s northwest wall. “A student need not take part in the actual destruction to encourage it,” the 17-year-old Hillary told the school paper at the time.
In the same edition, on the reverse side of the page, the paper printed a gag story that imagined a future Hillary — “a prosecuting attorney” with “a famous career” — being interviewed by Time magazine.
“What was your ambition in high school?” Time asked.
“To marry a senator,” fake-future Hillary replied, “and settle down in Georgetown.”
In her final semester of high school, Hillary narrated an English-class parody of “Hamlet,” titled “Halibut.” She was named a National Merit Scholarship finalist. She performed in the school variety show “Americana,” a two-hour spectacular tracing the history of the United States from the Pilgrims to the Twist.
Off campus in Park Ridge, “Goldfinger” opened in Technicolor. A man from the John Birch Society spoke to a capacity crowd at the Rotary Club. The local newspapers wrote about local boys heading to Vietnam and returning with Purple Hearts.
At the senior honors assembly before graduation, Hillary won a “goodwill” award for her friendliness. Multiple classmates recall that Hillary was also named “most likely to succeed.” But the final school paper of the year was less kind. It imagined the class of ’65 in 10 years, and depicted Hillary as a nun named “Sister Frigidaire.”
In reality, Hillary would be a lawyer — and about to marry Bill Clinton — by her 10-year reunion. For her 30-year reunion, in 1995, she hosted her classmates at the White House.
Last summer, as her classmates gathered for their 50-year reunion, she was a 67-year-old grandmother running for president.
“Here we were with our friends from high school, and the common conversation is, ‘Have you retired, or are you soon going to be retiring?’ ” says classmate Joel Platt. “And she’s looking for a new job. It’s kind of an illustration of how she’s one of us but she’s different,” with “a higher sense of service.”
This year, a few dozen classmates campaigned for her in Iowa, where Ernest Ricketts, the Oak Brook restaurateur, told voters about the Hillary he has known for 60 years: “I don’t think she’s changed.”
In the Park Ridge of 2016, Main Street still has gas lamps. Hillary is one of a handful of notable alumni with their own modest plaques in the halls of Maine East and South. At the corner of Wisner and Elm streets, her childhood house is marked by a small, easily overlooked green placard on a lamppost: “Rodham Corner.” Only one political yard sign is in the neighborhood, three blocks over, and it bears the name Trump.
And on Oct. 25, the class of 2017 will continue the tradition of holding mock elections at Maine East and South, and once again Hillary will be running for president.
Former Washington Post reporter Martha Sherrill contributed to this report.