At Stanford, Romney Got His Bearings in a Year of Change

At Stanford, Romney Got His Bearings in a Year of Change

By Scott Conroy - June 8, 2012

This story was written by Scott Conroy and reported by Conroy and CBS News' Laura Strickler.

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Mitt Romney was on his own for the first time in his life when he arrived at Stanford University in the late summer of 1965.

Though 2,000 miles from his Michigan home, he wasn't far outside his comfort zone -- not at first, at least.

An affable, good-looking and intellectually curious young man on a campus where many students matched that description, Romney began making friends on his very first day at Stanford.

Arriving on campus a day before the dorms opened to new students, Romney spent that first night at an administrator’s house where he met a classmate, Paul Richardson, who would become a close companion.

Slide show: Romney and Stanford, 1965-66

“I remember late that night he talked about his opinion on the economy, and he could talk seriously about the Taft Hartley Act -- he was very aware of the features of it,” Richardson recalled. “He had a very energizing personality. I admired him tremendously.”

As a fun-loving kid who in high school had a penchant for crowd-pleasing gags, Romney would have taken note of the “Freshman’s Pocket Guide to Stanford Life,” which informed members of the incoming class that a “bitchin’ R.F.” was the colloquial term Stanford students used to describe a particularly well-played practical joke.

As the class of ’69 poured into Palo Alto from around the country, there was excitement in the air over rumors that the university was on the verge of relaxing its stringent liquor policies. But as a non-drinker, Romney didn’t much care about that, nor was he overly concerned about potential run-ins with “Captain Midnight” -- the pejorative term that students assigned to the campus police.

Aside from participating in the annual high jinks surrounding the big football game with cross-bay rival UC-Berkeley, Romney avoided any hints of trouble that fall.

Though his tight-knit Rinconada Hall dorm mates would later wax poetic in the class yearbook about their “magnificent bods,” which were allegedly “in great demand throughout the year,” Romney only had eyes for his sweetheart, Ann, about whom he spoke incessantly.

From the third-floor room that he shared with Mark Marquess, a scholarship athlete who has coached Stanford’s top-flight baseball team for the last 36 years, Romney did not have a clear vantage point on the sharp needle of change that was about to suddenly pop his campus bubble.

Change and Tradition

In the fall of 1965, the Bay Area was Ground Zero for a political and cultural upheaval that would soon explode nationwide and define the latter half of the decade for Romney’s generation.

At a Palo Alto coffee house just down the street from Stanford, three young musicians had formed a jug band the previous year and were achieving some local popularity as a rock-and-roll outfit known as The Warlocks when Romney arrived in town. In December, the band members decided to change their name and gave their first performance in nearby San Jose as The Grateful Dead.

As Romney and his classmates attended school dances and pep rallies, Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters -- whose idea of a practical joke (dosing an unsuspecting recipient’s drink with LSD) was rather different than Romney’s -- were posting signs around Palo Alto to solicit new recruits for their “Acid Tests.”

Elsewhere around the Bay, the Psychedelic Shop opened for business in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in early January, and the UC-Berkeley campus, which had already weathered the student-led Free Speech Movement, was becoming the Mecca of collegiate radicalism.

In late January, the resumption of U.S. airstrikes in North Vietnam brought with it a surge of student anti-war activity at Stanford, where a small core of radical students was starting to catch up with their Berkeley cousins in visibility and temerity, if not in numbers.

Over the course of the academic year, The Stanford Daily had documented with increasing regularity the anti-Vietnam demonstrations that were picking up steam in the region, particularly in Berkeley, where at one protest march, it was reported that “many of the girls wore jackets, pants, and black knee-length boots or black hose. Many boys were bearded.”

Facial hair may have remained something of a novelty at Stanford, but sartorial norms were changing there, too.

Stanford ROTC students were being told by their superiors that they should change into civilian clothes immediately after completing their drills in order to avoid ridicule, and many of Romney’s classmates were growing their hair in the bushy style of The Beatles, who visited San Francisco’s Cow Palace in August.

Vietnam became the dominant political topic on campus, as students worried about whether the deferrals that their local draft boards had granted them would last as the demand for fresh inductees grew precipitously.

Meanwhile, Romney focused on integrating the traditions with which he was raised into his new life at Stanford. 

Though Romney discussed his general support for the war effort with likeminded students, his focus remained on matters closer to home.

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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