- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2005

DENVER — Five years after scandal drove him from the presidency of Hillsdale College and into a secluded cabin in the Colorado wilderness, George C. Roche III is still trying to explain what happened.

The problem is, he still doesn’t know. In his telling of it, he doesn’t know why daughter-in-law Lissa Roche announced in October 1999 that the two had been conducting a secret 19-year affair. Nor does he understand why, hours later, she killed herself with a gunshot to the head.

“I was blindsided by it,” says Mr. Roche in a telephone interview with The Washington Times, his first since Lissa’s death. “As I’ve reflected on it, I should have seen something that I didn’t see.”

In the ensuing uproar, Mr. Roche issued only a formal denial and refused to speculate on Lissa’s motives. He was denounced as a hypocrite and scoundrel, with some of the fiercest criticism coming from old conservative friends.

Hillsdale holds a special place in conservative hearts, thanks in large part to Mr. Roche. In his 28-year reign as its president, he transformed what had been an obscure Michigan party school into a nationally recognized bastion of conservative scholarship, hailed for its academic independence and refusal to accept federal aid.

With the scandal threatening to bring down the college, Mr. Roche stepped down and disappeared from public life.

“I didn’t know why she did what she had done, and I was interested in having all these people go away so that we could get on with our grieving,” he says. “The only way I could have defended myself was to depict Lissa as crazy. I wouldn’t have done it then, and I won’t do it now.”

In the years since, Mr. Roche has focused on repairing the damage done to his family. He has reconciled with his son, George C. Roche IV, known as I.V., who was initially convinced of his father’s guilt and became instrumental in his downfall.

Now 69, Mr. Roche has turned to mending his public reputation.

In his first appearance since he left Hillsdale, Mr. Roche presented a paper “The Third American Revolution” at the Freedom Seminar in Portland, Ore. His friends, heartened by his action, created a Web site for him last month, friendsofgeorgeroche.org.

Still, the question of his guilt remains unresolved in the minds of many. The Hillsdale leadership has concluded that “no one here is in a position to exonerate Dr. Roche, no matter how much we may wish him well,” says Douglas Jeffrey, vice president of external affairs.

“The bottom line is, we really don’t know what happened,” says Burt Folsom, a Hillsdale history professor who was hired two years ago — after Mr. Roche left. “If I go around campus, I hear, ‘Well, of course he’s innocent,’ and then I hear others say, ‘Well, of course he’s not.’

“If he is guilty, he did the right thing by stepping down and letting the college get over it,” Mr. Folsom says. “He did it in a quiet way and didn’t write a book about it saying ‘how I was railroaded by my daughter-in-law.’ If he’s innocent, then it’s a tragedy. Then he really is a martyr.”

Son backs off

What’s intriguing about evidence in the case is that there really isn’t any. Mr. Roche’s defenders argue that if these two well-known campus figures had been involved for 19 years, something — a note, a photograph, a witness — would have surfaced during the ensuing media frenzy.

In the absence of such proof, the most damning evidence against Mr. Roche became the testimony of his son. In the days after Lissa’s suicide, I.V. Roche told a number of people, including a reporter, that he thought his wife was telling the truth.

Lissa dropped her bombshell Oct. 17, 1999, before Mr. Roche, his wife and I.V. Roche in a hospital room where the Hillsdale president was being treated for a diabetic insulin reaction.

In an interview with National Review, I.V. said that after her declaration, his father “didn’t say a word.”

“I could tell by looking at him that she was telling the truth. I saw the look in his eyes. He was caught.”

Today, however, I.V. says he’s no longer convinced.

“I honestly don’t know what to think,” I.V. tells The Washington Times in his first interview since the scandal broke. “No one knows what happened five years ago — it’s a ‘he said, she said.’ I feel he was as surprised as I was, and I’ve tried to let it go.”

I.V. has since married a former Hillsdale professor and moved to Oregon. He says that he and his father enjoy a “cordial relationship” and that he agreed to a brief interview to “inject a kind and encouraging word” about him.

“What I think was obviously true was Lissa and my father developed a close emotional relationship over many years. Something obviously happened, and I don’t know what happened, and I don’t know that Dad does, either.

“I’m not willing to blame my father for something I don’t know about. You can go over and over the events of five years ago, or you can move on with your life, and that’s what I’ve chosen to do.”

His father describes the two as “completely reconciled.”

“My son and I are frequently in touch. I have four children, and I visit with them often.”

He does not blame I.V. for what happened.

“There are some people very angry with my son, saying he somehow caused something,” Mr. Roche says. “I don’t see it that way … It took awhile for me to get to this point, but I don’t think he failed me. It’s just the way things fell out.”

If Mr. Roche is irked with anyone, it’s the Hillsdale board of trustees.

“I wish someone like the trustees had said more than ‘We have no comment,’” Mr. Roche says. “But some of them have since come up to me to say, ‘We believe you, George. We know what really happened.’”

Mr. Roche has benefited from a loyal cadre of supporters who have continued to profess his innocence, among the most prominent being Hoover Institution scholar and columnist Thomas Sowell, who has written that Mr. Roche was the victim of “unsubstantiated charges.”

But that damage was done.

“I believe Dr. Roche, and I see no way to prove a negative and undo the harm done to his reputation,” Mr. Sowell says in a recent e-mail exchange.

Reaction to Clinton

Without I.V. Roche to blame his father, say his supporters, the case against him boils down to gossip and bad timing. It was no secret that Lissa loved Mr. Roche and was unhappy with her marriage to his son.

With the campus rumor mill churning, Mr. Roche fed the speculation when he divorced June, his wife of 44 years, in August 1998, and asked Lissa and I.V. to move in to the president’s house, Broadlawn, to help him care for his aging mother.

“She was the surrogate mother of the household,” says Ronald Trowbridge, former Hillsdale vice president of external programs and communications. “It led to suspicion and all sorts of gossip. His mistake was letting Lissa get too close to him.”

The arrangement fell apart a year later when Mr. Roche announced plans for a second marriage, to Mary “Dean” Hagan. He said Lissa and I.V. would have to move out to make room for his new wife. By several accounts, Lissa was so upset by the news that in September 1999, five days before the wedding, she resigned her Hillsdale post and moved to stay with her sister in California.

Mr. Roche and others persuaded her to return.

“It was the worst mistake he ever made,” says Richard Ebeling, a former Hillsdale economics professor and president of the Foundation for Economic Education.

Two months later, I.V. found Lissa’s body in a campus gazebo near their home. Soon afterward, Mr. Roche and Hillsdale were described in the national newspapers and magazines as pious phonies whose conservative facades masked rotten cores. Some of the criticism was aimed from the right. Columnist Joe Sobran scolded Mr. Roche, and the National Review and the Weekly Standard published devastating critiques of Hillsdale.

One theory is that conservatives, after years of piling on Bill Clinton for ethical and moral lapses, felt the need to demonstrate evenhandedness by coming down hard on one of their own.

“A lot of folks, in the absence of any firm refutation or confirmation, wanted to draw the line and let people know that ‘We don’t treat these things the way liberals do by burying them,’” Mr. Roche says. “They wanted to contrast this with Clinton.”

The college didn’t help matters. Many conservatives were disgusted with Hillsdale’s defensive press releases, conflicting stories and a “special convocation” held shortly after Mr. Roche’s departure that made no mention of the episode. Mr. Roche’s signature refusal of federal aid contributed to his undoing. It made Hillsdale heavily dependent on private donations, which declined sharply in the wake of the scandal.

“The reason George never had a chance in the court of public opinion is that Hillsdale College depends on its donor base,” Mr. Ebeling says. The trustees “panicked over how it would affect support for the college.”

Coming back

Hillsdale has bounced back. After two years of declining applications and fundraising, a record 1,100 high-school students applied for 300 slots this year, and the endowment sits at between $170 million and $180 million, Mr. Jeffrey says.

Whether Mr. Roche can wage a similar comeback is less clear, but his November speech at the Freedom Seminar gives him reason for optimism. David Hendersen, the seminar’s organizer, says a number of invited guests called to complain when they heard he had been invited.

“I got quite a few calls. They were pretty negative about having George Roche,” he says. But the reaction afterward was almost uniformly positive. “I had a number of people who had convicted him, but who changed their minds.

“If he was guilty as charged, that’s a bad thing,” he says. “But if he wasn’t, and he never had his day in court, then I couldn’t feel very good about that, after all he’s done at Hillsdale.”

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