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posted: 3/1/2016 5:22 AM

How Clinton's, Sanders' political lives began in Chicago, suburbs

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  • Video: Clinton friend Betsy Ebeling

  • Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in 2016.

    Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in 2016.

 
 

While they appeal to dramatically different sectors within the Democratic Party, presidential bidders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have something in common: Both spent formative years in the Chicago area, where the local political climate provided a fertile ground to get their start in public service and activism.

A glimpse into the rivals' lives in the 1960s lends an early look into the candidates they would later become -- Sanders, a rumpled student activist, was using a megaphone to rail against the University of Chicago establishment around the same time Clinton was emerging as a civic-minded perfectionist who participated in a dizzying array of clubs and activities at a new Maine South High School in Park Ridge.

Clinton, then known as Hillary Rodham, emerged as a student leader early in her school days, recalls Betsy Ebeling of Arlington Heights, one of the oldest and closest friends of the former first lady and secretary of state.

"We had really politically acute teachers in junior high," said Ebeling, who along with Clinton attended Emerson Middle School in Niles and Maine East High School in Park Ridge before graduating from Maine South. "This was during the Nixon-Kennedy (election in 1960). We became aware of the whole Catholicism issue. We reenacted debates. It was a pretty good introduction to what was going on."

The 1965 Maine South Eyrie yearbook shows a confidently smiling young Hillary with a flipped hairdo taking part in student council, National Honor Society, speech and debate, spring musical, class newspaper, pep club, the Brotherhood Society and the cultural values committee, and being a gym leader.

Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 1965 Maine South Eyrie.
Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 1965 Maine South Eyrie. - Courtesy of Maine South High School

A member of Park Ridge's First United Methodist Church, Clinton took trips into Chicago for service projects and met Martin Luther King Jr. at an Orchestra Hall lecture, records show.

"There was a great deal of student involvement," Ebeling said.

She described their upbringing in Park Ridge as relatively idyllic, with the pair riding bikes to the Pickwick Theater, ice skating at local parks in the winter and arguing whether George Harrison or Paul McCartney was the cuter Beatle (Clinton was firmly in McCartney's camp and Ebeling in Harrison's).

"We liked our parents. We liked our friends. We liked where we lived. There was not a bunch of angst," Ebeling said.

Back then, Clinton wasn't firmly a Democrat. She canvassed for Republican Barry Goldwater's campaign her senior year of high school.

Hillary Rodham Clinton got in the 1965 Maine South yearbook for being a National Merit finalist.
Hillary Rodham Clinton got in the 1965 Maine South yearbook for being a National Merit finalist. - Courtesy of Maine South High School

Her gregarious father, Hugh Rodham, was a Republican, known for challenging his daughter at the dinner table by taking the opposite side of an argument. "We had our disagreements around the dinner table every night," Clinton remarked at an appearance last month on Chicago's South Side.

By college, she had swung to the left and supported Democratic presidential contender Eugene McCarthy's anti-war campaign in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972.

Ebeling attended Albion College in Michigan but stayed in touch with Clinton, who headed to Wellesley College, near Boston. Clinton stood up in Ebeling's wedding, and Ebeling and her husband, Tom, were among just 17 at Hillary and Bill Clinton's 1975 nuptials in Arkansas.

Sanders, meanwhile, transferred from Brooklyn College in New York to the University of Chicago in 1961 after the death of his mother, Dorothy, according to the University of Chicago.

Sanders, whose Polish immigrant father sold paint to make ends meet, initially felt out of place on the Hyde Park campus, a 2015 University of Chicago Magazine article noted. While he funded his education through a combination of part-time jobs, grants and loans, he met children of doctors and lawyers who were unconcerned about how their education would be paid for.

But politics served as an equalizer for Sanders, who quickly gained notoriety for his thick Brooklyn accent.

"The people who were politically active were sort of drawn together," former classmate Mike Parker told the magazine.

In this 1962 photo provided by Magnum Photos, University of Chicago student Bernie Sanders, center, and other activists participate in a sit-in at the university during the civil rights movement.
In this 1962 photo provided by Magnum Photos, University of Chicago student Bernie Sanders, center, and other activists participate in a sit-in at the university during the civil rights movement. - Associated Press

The university was known as a hotbed of radicalism at the time. At U of C, Sanders, a self-described sloppy student, has admitted to spending more time reading Marx and Freud than preparing for tests and writing papers.

He worked for a meatpackers union, was arrested while demonstrating for school desegregation, met with the university's Young People's Socialist League, organized for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and joined the Congress of Racial Equality, Sanders said last week during a Chicago campaign stop.

"I came about here in the civil rights movement," Sanders told MSNBC's "Hardball" host Chris Matthews during a taping on the U of C campus last week. "The demand was that the University of Chicago end segregated housing and I got involved."

In 1962, he led a sit-in outside the University of Chicago president's office, calling a university policy to house black and white students separately "an intolerable situation." The following year, he took a bus trip to participate in the 1963 March on Washington, where he heard Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Sanders also volunteered with a Quaker service group to help paint poor Chicagoans' apartments.

"His feeling for people is something he had back then, and it's something he still has," Jim Rader, a friend of Sanders' who ran the Quaker house in Chicago, told Time magazine. "He always had a sympathy for the underdog."

After graduating with a political science degree in 1964, Sanders left for Israel and spent time volunteering in a kibbutz, before moving to Vermont, according to Mother Jones.

Arlington Heights resident Betsy Ebeling talks about her friendship with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
  Arlington Heights resident Betsy Ebeling talks about her friendship with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. - Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

Both Clinton and Sanders include their classmates in their close circles of friends. For Clinton, along with Ebeling, that includes Libertyville jewelry artist Bonnie Klehr, Judy Osgood of Arlington Heights, and Ernie Ricketts of Oak Brook, who have spent time traveling around the country canvassing for her at primary caucuses as well as sharing in the joy of a new stage of life together, as grandparents.

"It's a wonderful thing to share at this point in our lives," Ebeling said, "and I am really pleased that my grandchildren will see the fruit of her labors as far as what will happen in this country."

Could she see that, down the road?

"She was the captain of the grade school crossing guard. Who else to lead us?" Ebeling laughed.

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