Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Sarah Palin's college years left no lasting impression
Sarah Palin, then Sarah Heath, left, with classmate Stacia Crocker at a dorm party at the University of Idaho.
In the five years of her collegiate career, spanning four universities in three states, Palin left behind few traces. Not many professors or students even remember her.
By Robin Abcarian
October 21, 2008
Reported from Moscow, Idaho -- What can we learn about our political stars from impressions they made in college?
Sen. John McCain is remembered as a passionate contrarian who won the hearts of his classmates at the Naval Academy. Sen. Barack Obama, who attended Occidental College, Columbia University and Harvard Law School, is remembered as a daunting scholar and calming influence. Sen. Joe Biden, who had a brush with plagiarism at Syracuse University College of Law, is remembered fondly by professors who found him charming.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, however, is barely remembered at all.
In the five years of her collegiate career, spanning four universities in three states, Palin left behind few traces.
"Looking at this dynamic personality now, it mystifies me that I wouldn't remember her," said Jim Fisher, Palin's journalism instructor at the University of Idaho, where she graduated with a bachelor of science degree in journalism in 1987.
Palin, he said, took his public affairs reporting class, an upper-division course limited to 15 students. "It's the funniest damn thing," Fisher said. "No one can recall her."
"I don't remember her," said Roy Atwood, Palin's academic advisor at the university.
Indeed, interviews with a dozen professors yielded not a single snippet of a memory.
Most were perplexed and frustrated that they could offer no insight into a woman who has become their most famous former student. Only a few classmates recalled her, and those with the strongest memories were people she had grown up with in Alaska.
Some of her college anonymity is understandable. "She enrolled in and finished my class, American government, but I have had 12,000 students in my career, and maybe remember 400," said political scientist Tony Stewart, now retired from North Idaho College, which the future vice presidential candidate attended in 1983. Palin, he added, was not among them.
The former classmates who do recall her paint a portrait of a young woman who, like many freshmen, went from hometown stardom to college obscurity.
Friends described her as a serious, unassuming student who showed only brief flashes of the outsized political personality that would one day emerge.
"She wasn't out to get attention," said Michelle Carney Overstreet, a hometown friend and classmate at the University of Idaho. "She kept to herself."
At home, she was known as Sarah Barracuda, the ferocious point guard who led her high school team to a state basketball championship her senior year. But the standout athlete never joined a college team.
As soon as she graduated from Wasilla High School in 1982, she set her sights on leaving Alaska.
"Everybody who grew up in that town at that time was looking for a way out," said Overstreet, one of the few college classmates who had anything like a real memory of Palin. "We wanted to be more and do more."
Palin's parents -- a high school science teacher and school secretary -- could not afford the college tours so common today. Their four children were expected to, and did, work their way through college.
"We didn't have the luxury of spending a week driving around visiting universities to see what they're like," said Kim "Tilly" Ketchum, a high school friend. "We were looking at pictures of campuses."
Palin and Ketchum picked the University of Hawaii at Hilo from a brochure.
Only after arriving in Hawaii did they realize that Hilo had rainfall approaching 100 inches a year. "The rain," Ketchum said, "was disturbing."
They attended orientation but never even enrolled.
The Wasilla girls soon moved to sunny Honolulu and enrolled in Hawaii Pacific University, a small private liberal arts school. They lived in an apartment in the Waikiki Banyan and took a bus to school.
Palin, a school spokeswoman said, attended full time as a business student.
The girls studied on the beach, tried surfing and pulled straight A's, Ketchum said. "We took the basic classes -- chemistry and biology, this and that."
But there was a problem. "When you're used to having some cooler weather, you get tired of the heat," Ketchum said. "We went one semester there before we realized we needed to go someplace else."
They transferred to tiny North Idaho College, on the shore of Lake Coeur d'Alene. Palin's older brother, Chuck Jr., had gone there before transferring to their father's alma mater, the University of Idaho in Moscow.
At North Idaho, Palin and Ketchum found what they had missed in Honolulu. They lived on campus before moving to separate apartments their second semester. "It was all very quaint," Ketchum said. "You kind of felt safe."
Ketchum could remember only one out-of-character incident.
"Someone pulled the fire alarm next to my door," she said. "We all were told there is an invisible dye that squirts onto your hand when you pull the alarm and you're not going to be able to hide. And Sarah looked at her hands, and said, 'Oh my God, look!' And she went and confessed."
Ketchum discovered there that Palin was a natural in front of a camera, a quality that helped her land her first post-college job as a weekend sports reporter at an Anchorage television station. For a journalism class, they videotaped themselves giving a 30-minute speech for classmates to critique.
"She didn't have the kind of fear most kids would have had," Ketchum said. "I could barely handle it."
In 1984, after two semesters at North Idaho, Palin transferred to the University of Idaho. There, she continued her low-key life. A visit to the University of Idaho library here yielded little more than a senior photo of Palin from the yearbook. Though she majored in journalism, her name appears nowhere in the archives of the campus newspaper, the Argonaut.
During summers, Palin worked in an Italian restaurant and a seafood cannery and fished for salmon with high school boyfriend Todd Palin on his boat. While still enrolled in the University of Idaho in fall 1985, she moved home for a semester, taking classes at nearby Matanuska-Susitna College to save money.
Tuition at the university ranged from $485 a semester to $520 by the time Palin graduated. Generous educational loans from the state of Alaska helped her pay her way. So did beauty pageants.
"I razzed Sarah about it at the time," her brother said. "But she looked at me straight-faced and said, 'Hey, this is going to help pay for my college education.' "
Maryline Blackburn, who beat Palin for Miss Alaska in June 1984, said Palin, who competed as Miss Wasilla, earned at least $1,250 when she placed third and was named Miss Congeniality. The following year, Palin competed as Miss Big Lake and did not place, said Blackburn, a professional singer in Georgia.
"Everybody liked her, but I could tell she was very calculating," Blackburn said. "We were all very secretive about our talents and how we were going to present ourselves. She was always asking questions, figuring out what she needed to do to get ahead."
Stacia Crocker Hagerty, 42, lived on the same dorm floor as Palin and considered her a good friend. Still, the Coeur d'Alene lawyer and real estate agent said she had only a few random memories of Palin and a couple of snapshots -- including one at a 1986 "kegger" in which they sport big hair and wide belts over untucked blouses.
Palin was a calming presence who offered to pray for her when Hagerty had boyfriend troubles. "She was so 'steady Eddie,' so rock solid," Hagerty said. "She didn't make a big deal out of things like other people did. She talked about politics and history and what was going on in the world. I was like, whatever, I don't care about that stuff."
Until 1987, the Idaho drinking age was 19, and the university had a reputation as a top party school. Hagerty said Palin "was upbeat and fun but not a heavy partyer."
When she ran for Alaska governor in 2006, Palin admitted that she had smoked marijuana, but Hagerty said she never saw her friend do drugs.
Hagerty said Palin was good friends with Jill Loranger, their resident advisor for two years.
When reached at her home in Hailey, Idaho, Jill Loranger Clark was mystified.
"I can honestly tell you I have no idea who she was," said Clark, a middle school teacher. "If she had been a big party animal, I would have remembered her."