BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. – Just hours after President Obama came out in support of same-sex marriage during a nationally televised interview, his chief rival in the race for the White House was answering questions about an incident that occurred while he was in high school 47 years ago. Mitt Romney’s 1965 hair-cutting prank shed light on his upbringing, and the prep school where he spent his formative years.
“It happened very quickly, and to this day it troubles me,” said Thomas Buford, one of the boys who helped Romney restrain and cut John Lauber’s hair, in Thursday’s Washington Post. “What a senseless, stupid, idiotic thing to do.”
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Romney has apologized for the incident that has shined a spotlight on the expensive and exclusive boarding school in the affluent Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. Cranbrook was founded in 1904 and enrolls students from Kindergarten through 12th grade. It is both a day school and a boarding school.
The campus also houses an art institute and museum, a science institute and a botanical garden. The school was even notably mentioned as part of a barb in Eminem’s closing freestyle in the movie 8 Mile.
“Cranbrook is a very beautiful place,” said Sidney Barthwell, Jr., a 1965 Cranbrook graduate. Barthwell, who is currently a magistrate with the 36th District Court in Detroit, was the only African-American in Romney’s graduating class.
”(Cranbrook) has five different educational institutions. It has the art institute, the science institute; it had Kingswood Academy, which was an all-girls school. It was considered the best high school in the state and one of the top high schools in the country from an academic perspective,” Barthwell told theGro. “It was very rigorous.”
Romney, the son of former Michigan Gov. George Romney, entered Cranbrook in 1959 as a 12-year-old seventh grader, following in the footsteps of his brother and two sisters. Barthwell, who lived at the boarding school, noted that Cranbrook’s curriculum involved structured study hours and numerous, rigid rules and as he put it: “they were not above expelling people who broke those rules.”
Barthwell’s father, Sidney Barthwell, Sr., was a well-known pharmacist in Detroit who owned a chain of 11 drug stores and also made his own ice cream – “He used to make a half-million gallons of ice cream per year and 13 flavors” – and wanted to give his children a better life. Barthwell’s sister was accepted into Kingswood, and became the first black student of Cranbrook’s all-girls high school.
“There had already been a number of black students by the time I got into Cranbrook,” Barthwell, 64, said. “They were guys who I had known in Detroit from the upper class of black people, such as doctors.
Cranbrook a ‘culture shock’
“Going out to Cranbrook was a culture shock for me, personally, because there was such an extreme change for me to realize that world had existed. But, overall, I was treated pretty well. Cranbrook was a place that promoted pretty gentile behavior.”
The elder Barthwell and George Romney had known each other prior to their sons entering Cranbrook. Mitt and Sidney Jr., knew each other but did not run in the same circles.
“We knew each other well and had a cordial relationship,” Barthwell said of the younger Romney. In terms of the hair-cutting incident, Barthwell said that he did not have any direct recollection of it.
“This happened in Steven’s Hall,” he said. “What happened in the dormitory tended to stay in the dormitory. Because of the potential for severe disciplinary action, people kept their mouths shut.
“So I didn’t have any personal recollection of that incident but, before that story broke, I did talk to some of my classmates and a couple of them had said something about it. But when I heard about it, my response was, ‘Yeah, that probably happened.’ I don’t doubt the veracity of the people who said it because I know them and they are very ethical people. I have no reason to question the validity of the story.”
Barthwell said that people should understand that this occurred nearly 50 years ago and this does not reflect who Mitt Romney is now. He also added that Mitt was known as a “middle of the road” student academically, and a bit of a prankster.
“In a dormitory full of teenage boys, that was the kind of setting where that sort of thing could happen from time to time,” Barthwell said. “But if somebody asked me if I thought Mitt was a bully, the answer is a very definitive no. Mitt was not an intimidating person at all.”
“He was skinny. He wasn’t an athlete; he wasn’t a leader of the class. At the time, he was not considered one of the top scholars at the school,” Barthwell said, adding that he thinks the hair cutting incident is being blown out of proportion. “It was an unfortunate incident obviously, but I don’t think that it would end up being as dastardly as it has been portrayed.”
Ironically, more than 20 years later, Barthwell would become a classmate of President Obama’s at Harvard Law School. After finishing his undergraduate degree at Wayne State University in 1987, Barthwell entered Harvard, where Obama started attending the following year.
“We worked together on a law review at Harvard,” Barthwell said. “Barack was from Chicago, I was from Detroit and that was back in the days of the Bad Boys (Detroit Pistons) so I used to ride Barack about (the Chicago Bulls).”
“Barack was a very, very nice guy; a very smart guy. In a city full of upright people, he really stood out as being an exceptionally intelligent man,” Barthwell said. “I’ve never heard a bad thing come out of that man’s mouth and I haven’t yet.”
The Romney incident has drawn national attention to Cranbrook, leading to portrayals of the school being a largely white, elitist prep school. Barthwell said that he dealt with no overt racial issues at Cranbrook; he did acknowledge that some students “didn’t what him to be there,” but they did not make it known to him.
“Sometimes, you would get a grade that would be half a grade lower that what you thought you deserved,” he said. “You would wonder that the motive was behind that grade. Maybe you didn’t make the football team and you thought you deserved to be on the team.”
“But those kinds of things were speculative, and you couldn’t stand up and say without a reasonable doubt that it was strictly based on race. It didn’t happen often enough for it to be a pattern,” he said.
Since 1965, however, the racial and ethnic makeup at Cranbrook has changed considerably. While there were just 4 black students out of the 450 at Cranbrook during Barthwell’s time there, 37 percent of the current student body is comprised of minorities. While the middle school is still single-gender, Cranbrook and Kingswood integrated in 1986.
“The change (at Cranbrook) has been dramatic,” Barthwell said. “Now, Cranbrook is like a rainbow of students. It’s so diverse. It’s really quite remarkable to see how much it has changed.”
The school’s Horizon Upward Bound Program, which was introduced in 1965, gives low-income kids from the Detroit area who are potential “first-generation” college students an opportunity to attend the school on full scholarships. The program is funded by both private and corporate donations, as well as money from the U.S. Department of Education.
Currently, 83 percent of Upward Bound students are African-American, and 97 percent of those students graduate high school.
“That program has been tremendously successful,” Barthwell said. “The school was netting 15 to 20 black students per year. It accelerated diversity tremendously and to go out to Cranbrook now, at least from a diversity perspective, it’s like night and day.”
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