At Prep School, Kerry Was an Outsider

Todd S. Purdum, in the NYT (May 16, 2004):

He was a champion debater, a good student, a strong and graceful athlete in a small, judgmental universe that prized such skills and knew him well. But for five formative years, John Kerry stood a step apart at St. Paul's School, gaining achievement more than acceptance.

Danny Barbiero, a middle-class boy from suburban Long Island who was Mr. Kerry's best friend, remembers how they made common cause in a boarding school full of Pillsburys, Peabodys, Pierponts and Pells. One day, Mr. Barbiero went to see a favorite teacher, the school's first black faculty member, and found someone else already there.

"I went into his apartment," recalled Mr. Barbiero, now an employee benefits consultant."And he said, `This is Johnny Kerry. He's just feeling a little out of sorts because he thinks people don't like him.' I said, `Who cares what people think! You're obviously a terrific person.'"

Mr. Kerry is 60 now and running for president of his country, not of his class. But to a striking degree, the personal qualities that propel him — and daunt him — are the same ones that buoyed and bedeviled him when he was 16 and striving to succeed at St. Paul's, then an austere all-boys enclave, the seventh school Mr. Kerry had attended by the time he arrived here in eighth grade.

Mr. Kerry has always been a pace apart in every world he has inhabited — from grade school to college to Vietnam to the Senate — moving forcefully and successfully through diverse milieus without ever being fully of them. To his critics, his ambition has always been just a little too obvious, his manner too calculating. To his friends, his tenderheartedness and complexities have been too little understood. Always and everywhere, his seriousness has stood out.

"I wish I could give you fresh material, but I can't," said Max King, another classmate, who went on to edit The Philadelphia Inquirer and now, by coincidence, is president of the Heinz Endowments, the wealthy Pittsburgh charity of which Mr. Kerry's wife, Teresa, is the chairwoman."He was at 13 and 14 as serious and earnest and idealistic as he is today, and very much like the person he is today."

If only because life is like high school, Mr. Kerry's adolescent experiences are worth examining in some detail. But for him, those years may loom even larger, since as the son of a diplomat, he grew up in various temporary quarters in America and Europe. From 1957 to 1962, his real home was St. Paul's, and it was here that enduring patterns were set.

"The culture was alien," Mr. Kerry recalled in one of two long interviews late last year."It had a language that I didn't know at first, kind of a body language. It was just a little different. I came from a very different experience. It took some learning."

In an 11th- or 12th-grade student production of"Julius Caesar," Mr. Kerry played a memorable Cassius, warning in his already sonorous voice,"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

"And he still has that lean and hungry look," said another classmate, Philip Heckscher, now a teacher and Chinese calligrapher, who played Marc Antony."He was a very good actor." He was also, Mr. Heckscher said,"a very focused person, and that might have made him seem ruthless to some. He was very focused in a culture where people were generally indirect about things, and that made him stand out a bit."...

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