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Roberts started on path to success at young age
LONG BEACH, Ind. — By age 16, John G. Roberts Jr., a young Catholic and son of a steel company executive, was emerging as a gifted writer with firmly rooted traditional values.
An editorial the Supreme Court nominee penned for his high school paper in 1972 refers to the Latin texts of Cicero and offers a fervent argument against admitting girls to La Lumiere School — then an all-boys school — in northern Indiana.
“I tend to think that the presence of the opposite sex in the classroom will be confining rather than catholicizing,” he wrote. “I would prefer to discuss Shakespeare’s double entendre and the latus rectum of conic sections without a [b]londe giggling and blushing behind me.”
“Game times should be interesting too,” Judge Roberts, then a junior at the Catholic lay-teacher school, wrote in the Torch, the school’s newspaper. “Imagine the five cheerleaders on the sidelines, with block “L’s” on their chests, screaming, “Give me a ‘L’!” Give me a break!”
From all accounts, Judge Roberts made his own breaks, beginning at an early age.
Several retired teachers and former classmates of Judge Roberts recall an insightful student who excelled in the classroom and on the playing fields, constantly raising the bar for his peers.
“He was the finest student in terms of academic ability and raw talent,” said David Kirkby, who taught Judge Roberts in math and morals classes and coached him on the football and wrestling teams. “He was just the most powerful student intellectually that the school ever had.”
James L. Coppens, who taught Latin, said Judge Roberts plowed through four years’ worth of the subject in a three-year stretch, requiring the teacher to create a special one-on-one Latin curriculum for the eager student.
“In his senior year, we were reading Virgil’s ‘Aeneid,’ and by the end of the year, he was just about able to translate it as well as I could if not better,” Mr. Coppens said. He was “head and shoulders above” everyone, the “best I ever had.”
The extra study likely helped Judge Roberts become La Lumiere’s first student accepted to Harvard.
John Glover Roberts Jr. was born in 1955 in Buffalo, N.Y., to Rosemary and John “Jack” Roberts Sr., who was hired that year by the powerful Bethlehem Steel Corp.
The family moved to Indiana in 1960, where Jack Roberts, winning high regard for his Japanese-style management techniques, was tabbed as an assistant general manager to run the electrical engineering section of a new plant in Burns Harbor, about 40 miles south of Chicago.
“He was a really nice man, but a technocrat,” said John Langley, who worked under Jack Roberts at the plant and had a son about the same age as John G. Roberts Jr. “There was nothing political about Jack Roberts.”
The family,including Judge Roberts’ three sisters, built a house nearby in the small, resortlike town of Long Beach, just blocks from the southern shore of Lake Michigan.
They settled into the area’s large Catholic community, becoming regulars at the Notre Dame Church. The children went to the church’s elementary school, and later, young John enrolled in La Lumiere in nearby La Porte, Ind.
Quiet Long Beach has taken the news of his Supreme Court nomination in stride. A recent realty advertisement in the community’s newspaper for a house a few doors down from his boyhood home capitalized on the news.
“Growing up in Long Beach could be your child’s first step toward the Supreme Court!!!” said the ad for a house listed at $449,900. “Only 2 blocks to the great beach at Stop 28 (where John Roberts learned to swim!).”
In announcing his selection to fill the Supreme Court position being vacated by Sandra Day O’Connor last month, President Bush said Judge Roberts had “worked summers in a steel mill to help pay his way through college.”
During at least one summer, Judge Roberts worked temporarily at Burns Harbor through a program that gave jobs to children of plant managers.
John Langley Jr., a schoolmate of Judge Roberts, also worked summers at the plant, although he didn’t work directly alongside the younger Roberts.
“It was labor,” Mr. Langley said of his job, which offered “monster money back in the early ‘70s,” paying about $8.75 an hour for cleaning up industrial waste and other “really nasty jobs” that year-round laborers didn’t want to do.
The jobs presented the prep-schoolers with “just this huge cultural divide,” Mr. Langley said. “We’re all going to private boarding schools, and here you’ve got Bethlehem labor out there. … But they wouldn’t [mess] with you because dad was in management, and they didn’t want to get in trouble for [messing] with management’s kids.”
The summer work might have influenced Judge Roberts, but it was at La Lumiere, the small private school founded in 1963 by Indiana friends and business associates, where his intellect was shaped.
La Lumiere was not tied officially to the Catholic Church, meaning its teachers were not nuns and priests. However, priests visited to celebrate Mass on Sundays. Nestled on a bucolic pond-side campus, the 90 or so boys accepted to the school interacted with the young teaching staff like a tightknit family, former teachers said.
The curriculum was rigorous, and students were expected to participate in sports. In his senior year, Judge Roberts was co-captain of the football team and he won 12 out of 13 matches in the 132-pound weight class as a wrestler.
It was a “very family” community, said Mr. Kirkby, who headed the dorm where Judge Roberts was proctor to other students his senior year. Mr. Kirkby’s wife and 3-year-old daughter, Tricia, lived in a small house connected to the dorm.
“John and the other guys would come around and sit in the living room with her, and she would pour Pepsi into tea cups. … It was her little tea party is what it was,” Mr. Kirkby said. “Those guys were special, because the look on Tricia’s face, she’d just be glowing.”
Judge Roberts had deep friendships with other students, several of whom remember him as their sharpest peer. Although four boys in his class won mention for a single subject, records show that Judge Roberts won “graduation prizes” for chemistry, English, English essay, French, history, history essay, mathematics and theology.
La Lumiere, which is French for “the light,” also marked a key period when he was intimately exposed to children from other backgrounds.
“He was certainly among the brightest of the bright, and I remember him as just a genuinely nice guy. He never wanted to flaunt it,” said Neil A. Barclay, who, as one of the first black students admitted to the school, graduated a year ahead of Judge Roberts in 1972.
Now president and chief executive officer of the African American Cultural Center of Greater Pittsburgh, Mr. Barclay recalled a school performance of the play “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”
Because it was an all-boys school, Judge Roberts — perhaps because of his small build or a strong-natured willingness to endure ribbing from his classmates — was cast as Peppermint Patty and donned a dress for the production.
“We actually performed it for a girls school down the way, for St. Mary’s Academy,” said Mr. Barclay, whose younger brother, Paris, now a prominent Hollywood writer and producer, was cast as Snoopy in the play.
St. Mary’s, which has since closed, was one of a handful of girls schools that joined La Lumiere for occasional co-ed dances and mixers.
“We didn’t really have much of a dating thing,” said Robert MacLaverty, a lifelong friend of Judge Roberts and his senior-year roommate.
Now a prominent investment banker in Chicago, Mr. MacLaverty said he couldn’t remember whom Judge Roberts brought to the senior prom, but noted: “I think he was one of the kind who hung out with groups of guys who hung out with groups of girls.”
As far as engaging in the sort of nefarious activities stereotypical of teenagers, Mr. MacLaverty said, “In those days, the big thing was sneaking off into the woods to sneak a smoke.
“John was never anywhere near any of that,” Mr. MacLaverty said.
La Lumiere was competitive, and Judge Roberts was admitted after impressing school officials by writing in his application: “I won’t be content to get a good job by getting a good education, I want to get the best job by getting the best education.”
Former students and at least one former teacher also recalled occasionally tense interactions with students and parents from some of the rural Indiana towns whose public high schools La Lumiere competed against in sports.
“They would look at our school bus pull up and our team would get off the bus and we’d be wearing our navy blazers and our shirt and tie and they would look at that and, you know, say ‘who the [heck] are those guys,’” Mr. Kirkby recalled.
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