HAMILTON, N.J. - Judge Samuel Anthony Alito Jr., the son of two public-school teachers and prominent members of the Italian community surrounding nearby Trenton, was never the sort to draw attention to himself, unless it was praise for his perfect grades in school.
"He was painstakingly perfect," says Grace Bolge, who taught the Supreme Court nominee Latin in ninth grade and has long been a friend of his mother, still a resident of this quiet township 50 miles south of New York City.
"He was a wonderful student," she said. "However, I have to say this he was never a rah-rah cheerleading type of student. If anything, you could call him humble. He could have shown off because the kids knew he was bright, but he was not an attention-grabbing person at all."
Far from the heated battles over his views on abortion and other matters that will hover over Judge Alito's Senate confirmation hearings beginning Jan. 9, is a quiet past one where he grew up in a modest, middle-class Italian-American family on a path to Princeton, Yale, a star-studded legal career and an eventual federal judgeship.
Judge Alito was born April 1, 1950, in Trenton to Italian immigrant Samuel A. Alito Sr. and his wife, the former Rose Fradusco. The family, including Judge Alito's younger sister Rosemary, moved to Hamilton after the parents had secured jobs as public-school teachers.
"They were a very close-knit family," said David Bonanni, who is four years younger than Judge Alito and grew up next door in Hamilton. "His father was well-versed and so was the mother, I don't know if they were strict, or if it was just the intellectual gene."
"I think Sam was a true Italian-American," Mr. Bonanni said, adding that the Alito family was "very social" and, like his own family, belonged to the Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic parish in nearby, Mercerville, N.J.
If confirmed to replace outgoing Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Judge Alito will bring to five the number of Catholics on the high court. He will be the second sitting member with roots in the Trenton area's Italian-American community, where Justice Antonin Scalia grew up 15 years before him.
Community members say the 1960s, when Judge Alito was in his formative years, was a time when many families were migrating out of inner-city Trenton to the suburbs. Mr. Bonanni recalled that Judge Alito often baby-sat for him and his brother when they were boys in Hamilton.
"Sam would come over and mind the boys if you will," Mr. Bonanni said. "He would keep an eye on us a little homework after school, or whether we shot a basketball for a couple of hours or so, there was always something to do in the neighborhood.
"I looked up to him," Mr. Bonanni said. "There was always some issues with my schoolwork, and there was never a time when Sam wouldn't help me."
Judge Alito ran track at Hamilton East-Steinert High School, but former classmates say he shone most brightly in the classroom. While other students focused on weekend football games, he concentrated on getting into the highly exclusive, Ivy League hallways of Princeton, just a short drive from his hometown.
By his sophomore year in high school, he had emerged as a force to be reckoned with on the school's debate team, and in addition to getting the best grades he was valedictorian for the class of 1968 he was well-liked, being elected president of the student council.
Former classmates recall that he was an avid Philadelphia Phillies fan, and dressed in a black gown and wearing a boyish smile, he is a portrait of innocence in his senior picture.
William Agress, who was his partner on the debate team, recalled a conservative environment at the school, saying he didn't recall much talk of dating or girls at the time.
What he does recall is that he and Judge Alito took the debate team very seriously.
"We considered ourselves to be a debate team of high integrity," said Mr. Agress, who as a senior picked the sophomore Judge Alito to be his partner.
"Some of the students played kind of loose with the facts and statistics," he said. "We never did, and we won most of our debates."
In 1968, Judge Alito began at Princeton University, where his bookish nature and steadfast approach to course work were a smooth fit among the nation's academic elite. Although he was the president of Princeton's Debate Panel his junior year, his boldest accomplishments at the university came in the form of his extracurricular writings.
As a senior, Judge Alito served as chairman of a Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs undergraduate conference, which authored a report titled "The Boundaries of Privacy in American Society."
The report cited a "great threat to privacy in modern America" and called for the establishment within the federal government of a "three-man Federal Privacy Ombudsman" to hear citizen complaints about "invasions of privacy by agencies of the government not concerned with either the prevention of crime or matters of national security."
In a section titled "Laws concerning Homosexuality," the conference argued for a loosening of sodomy laws, writing that "no private sexual act between consenting adults should be forbidden" and that "discrimination against homosexuals in hiring should be forbidden." The conference said coercive sexual acts, acts involving minors and acts that offend public decency should remain banned.
Citing Supreme Court precedents, the conference said the judiciary should be entrusted with preventing abuses of privacy by federal agencies.
Judge Alito's senior thesis at Princeton about the Italian Constitutional Court may shed considerably less light on his judicial philosophy at the time, but the exhaustive 137-page document lends key insight into his thinking and his passions as a young man.
If nothing else, the subject matter of the thesis exposes the depth of his interest in his Italian heritage. Judge Alito traveled to Italy on a special scholarship during the summer between his junior and senior years, and his class of 1972 yearbook entry brags that the thesis was "researched in various sidewalk cafes in Rome and Bologna."
The paper is mainly a history of the Italian Constitutional Court, with the juiciest passages centering on an explanation of cases involving the relationship between church and state.
"The relationship between the Catholic Church and the Italian State has surely been one of the most important issues perhaps the single most important issue in the history of Italy since the Risorgimento," Judge Alito wrote, referring to the unification of Italy as a single nation during the mid-19th century.
"The Constitutional Court, for example, sits in a baroque palace, the Palazzo della Consulta, which was originally constructed for a cardinal," the 21-year-old Alito wrote.
Showing a bit more of his humorous side in is 1972 yearbook entry, Judge Alito jokingly noted that he spent his senior year at Princeton as an exclusive Woodrow Wilson scholar "thinking great and ineffable thoughts."
By the fall of 1972, he had begun to come into his own as a legal-minded scholar. He matriculated to New Haven, Conn., where he had been accepted into Yale Law School.
The years that followed would see Judge Alito shine as brightly at Yale as at Princeton. He would then emerge onto a fast track of government lawyering in New Jersey and in Washington in President Reagan's Justice Department, before being appointed to the federal appeals court bench in 1990 by President George Bush.