Asked to recall his graduation from the University of Pennsylvania, Donald Trump obliged with so few details he might have been reading from a children’s book.
“The weather was beautiful,” he once told the Boston Globe. “My parents were there, and it was a nice day.”
We can fill in a few more details from the historical records of that ceremony — exactly 50 years ago, May 20, 1968, the same year that 16,899 U.S. soldiers died at the peak of the Vietnam War.
Trump posed for a photo that day with his beaming father, whose real estate fortune he was destined to inherit. Not yet 22, he half-smiled, and his arms hung limply from the cuffs of his robe.
He wore a golden yellow fringe around his collar: standard-issue for an economics major from the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce — and incidentally the same color he would one day use to decorate his penthouses, skyscrapers and the Oval Office.
Young Trump waited in the Philadelphia Civic Center with hundreds of classmates, all robed in their own symbolic colors and many, like him, about to face exposure to the Vietnam draft for the first time in their lives.
Then Trump accepted his bachelor’s degree and departed the Pennsylvania campus.
And the war never touched him.
Four months later, as The Washington Post has written, a previously undocumented foot condition effectively exempted Trump from the draft. He almost immediately began to build his business empire, unimpeded by war or studies.
The cult of personality that has lately formed around Trump has used his acceptance into Wharton, and some very broken math, to derive that he must be a genius with an IQ of 156 to have studied at the Ivy League business school.
Trump has never dispelled the idea, though the few anecdotes he has shared from his time at Wharton sometimes conflict with recorded history. And more often, Trump speaks of Wharton with no details at all — almost as an empty token of his brilliance and success.
It became almost his mantra as he campaigned for president, repeated over and over to swelling crowds in different cities:
“I went to Wharton School of Finance,” Trump would say. “The best business school in the world … Wharton School of Finance … the hardest school to get into … Wharton School of Finance … Wharton School of Finance … Wharton School of Finance.”
And if, on that morning in 1968 in his robe and his youth, Trump had felt any fear at all of being exposed to a vicious war on the other side of the world, such thoughts have vanished from his latter-day accounts.
“You graduate from a great school, ”Trump told the Globe as he launched his presidential campaign in 2015. “That was the beginning, right? The real beginning was that day.”
The Daily Pennsylvanian once tried to find people who knew Trump at Wharton. Of the 13 classmates the newspaper spoke to, it wrote, “only one remembers seeing Trump at all on campus.”
The Globe had a bit more luck, and in 2015 managed to paint a portrait of the student, or at least his superficial aspects: The Ford convertible Trump drove from his father’s mansion in Queens to West Philadelphia in 1966, when he transferred to Wharton in his junior year. The briefcase he carried around, which stuck out on campus as much as his suits.
“I got in quickly and easily,” Trump told the Globe. “And it’s one of the hardest schools to get into in the country — always has been.”
This was true. Fewer than one in four freshman applicants got into Wharton in the late 1960s, the Globe wrote, and standards could have been even stricter for transfer students.
Trump’s previous years of education had been turbulent: His father had abruptly sent him to a military boarding school in eighth grade, The Post wrote, after discovering the boy had been playing with switchblades to imitate a gang member. He nearly pushed a cadet out a window during a fight at the academy but emerged from high school as a passable potential heir to the family business.
His high school graduation also made him eligible for the draft, but like many young Americans he was able to obtain academic deferments as he studied for two years at Fordham University in New York, then transferred to Penn for his first real venture into the adult world.
A classmate at Wharton, Louis Calomaris, told the Globe that a professor once asked students why they took his class.
Trump stood and announced, “I’m going to be the king of New York real estate,” Calomaris recalled. Several students rolled their eyes.
He had few friends on campus, the Globe wrote, and to the extent that he left any impression on anyone, it was often somewhere between aloof confidence and boastfulness.
This didn’t seem to bother Trump. “Perhaps the most important thing I learned at Wharton was not to be overly impressed by academic credentials,” he wrote in “The Art of the Deal,” his memoir. “It didn’t take me long to realize that there was nothing particularly awesome or exceptional about my classmates, and that I could compete with them just fine.”
Trump shunned parties, alcohol and ballgames, the Globe wrote. He didn’t even take a photo for the college yearbook.
Many off his schoolmates were protesting the Vietnam War, but Trump took no part in those marches. He lived off-campus in a rented, roach-infested apartment, and returned to New York most weekends to work with his father.
“He generally stayed in after classes, watched the talk-show host Johnny Carson, whom he greatly admired, and went to sleep,” Michael D’Antonio wrote in his biography, “The Truth About Trump.”
A select and small circle of classmates admired him. “He was a really nice, low-key guy. He was very self effacing,” Ted Sachs, who sometimes shared a fried oyster lunch with Trump, told the Daily Pennsylvanian. Candice Bergen, destined to become an actress, went on a blind date with him. Trump was “nice,” she told People years later, but “it was a very short evening.”
“You know, I wasn’t Trump then, you understand?” Trump told the Globe. “I was Trump, but I wasn’t Trump.”
But he was becoming Trump.
He devoted the majority of his free time at Penn to putting whatever lessons he gleaned from his classes to immediate use. With a $2 million loan from his father and various shell companies to conceal his identity, the Globe wrote, Trump purchased several properties in Philadelphia — building the beginning of his business empire in between business-school classes.
On the morning of Trump’s graduation in 1968 — “the beginning,” as he said — his time at Wharton amounted to a single line of text in the program, as part of a Bachelor of Science in Economics list:
“Donald John Trump.” No dean’s list, no honors or distinctions of any kind.
The Vietnam War raged on, having peaked with the bloody Tet Offensive earlier in 1968, but ultimately claiming the lives of more than 58,000 U.S. forces before it ended in 1975.
Very briefly, the war threatened to derail Trump’s plans for his future in real estate.
“A few weeks after his 22nd birthday, Donald Trump received a notice from the federal government,” Craig Whitlock wrote in the The Post. “On July 9, 1968, his local draft board had scrawled a ‘1A’ beside his name in its handwritten ledger, classifying him as available for unrestricted military service.”
“With his diploma in hand and his college days over,” Whitlock wrote, “he was suddenly vulnerable to conscription.”
But by the end of the year, Trump was once again safe from war, having reported for a military physical exam and failed it that September.
As Trump would later explain it, he had been excused from service because his doctor found bone spurs in one foot — a temporary condition that left him, decades later, unable to recall which foot had been affected. His rivals mock him to this day as “Cadet Bone Spurs.”
Trump returned to Penn 16 years after he graduated, in 1984, to tell an overflowing lecture hall about his business success.
“Confidence is one of the things you learn at Wharton,” Trump told the students, as reported by the Pennsylvanian. “One of the reasons is because Wharton gets the finest students.”
When a student asked if Trump would share his fortune with the school, he joked, “I’ll match you dollar for dollar.”
But he has donated to the school fairly regularly, the Pennsylvanian reported — up to $1.5 million by 2016, though much of that generosity appeared to coincide with the attendance of Trump’s children at the college in the late 1990s and 2000s.
All in all, there is little overt sign at the University of Pennsylvania that Donald John Trump ever attended.
Even when Trump won the presidency in 2016, and the university’s president released a statement hoping that “ideals that we hold dear at Penn — inclusion, civic engagement and constructive dialogue — will guide our nation’s new administration,” she did not name Trump, or mention that he graduated from the college, the Atlantic wrote.
To this day, a Daily Pennsylvanian reporter told the Atlantic, “the only marker on campus bearing his name … is a plaque in a nondescript study room in the school’s main library; Trump’s name is listed among other donors from the class of 1968 who funded it.”
Still, Trump has spent the last half-century reminding people of his time there.
The New York Times wrote its first profile of the Trump Organization and its dozens of apartment buildings in 1973 — five years after Trump graduated, and the same year that the United States began to withdraw from Vietnam.
This line somehow appeared in the story as fact:
“Donald, who was graduated first in his class from the Wharton School of Finance of the University of Pennsylvania in 1968, joined his father about five years ago. He has what his father calls ‘drive.’ ”
Trump was described as “first in his class” again in another Times story in 1976, after a reporter from the newspaper spent a day with the young entrepreneur — and his wool suit, and patent-leather shoes, and penthouse apartment, and family properties worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Again, and again, the phrase appeared. “Just about every profile ever written about Mr. Trump states that he graduated first in his class at Wharton in 1968,” the Times wrote when it profiled him again in 1984.
This time, the newspaper noted that the claim contradicted university records, which showed that Trump had not even made the honor roll. The school refused to comment on his grades, as it still does now.
Speaking to New York Magazine in 1988, Trump finally corrected the record. “Okay, maybe not ‘first,’ as myth has it,” the magazine wrote, “but he had ‘the highest grades possible.’ ”
There are other gaps between the myth of Trump at Wharton and apparent reality.
According to the Times, in a local TV interview in 2011, Trump shared a rare anecdote from his days on campus — about learning he might be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.
“I’ll never forget,” Trump told Fox 5 New York. “I was going to the Wharton School of Finance, and I was watching as they did the draft numbers, and I got a very, very high number.”
This could not have been true, the Times wrote, because the first draft lottery was not held until 18 months after Trump left Wharton.
The White House did not respond to an interview request from The Washington Post about Trump’s time at Wharton. He has mentioned the school in public at least 93 times since early 2015, by the Pennsylvanian’s count — but the more he speaks of it, the less he seems to say.
“So I went to the Wharton School of Finance, which is considered the best business school, okay?” he told an audience in Arkansas during his 2016 campaign, the newspaper wrote. “Gotta be very smart to get into that school, very smart.”
That quote was no briefer than his other remarks about the school. This YouTube compilation is fairly representative: Trump speaks of Wharton as little more than a symbol of his greatness.
As the actual school, Penn administrators have consistently declined to comment on Trump. When the Atlantic asked around campus this month, it found no Trump fans, and noted that nearly 4,000 alumni had signed an open letter telling the former student: “You do not represent us.”
The university board, according to the Pennsylvanian, has quietly issued written instructions to campus tour guides — in the event a visitor asks about Trump.
If the visitors asks about Trump attending Penn, the instructions state, the tour guide is advised to reply, “Yes, he graduated from Wharton in 1968,” and move on to other topics.
These instructions, as published by the Pennsylvanian, were illustrated with a photo of a latter-day Trump at campaign rally — pointing his finger in the air and twisting his face into a ridiculous sneer.
He left no yearbook photo, after all.
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