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They Knew Hillary When . . .

Sure, they wish she'd stayed true to her Republican upbringing. But the first lady's hometown neighbors are still proud.

August 28, 1996|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARK RIDGE, Ill. — It is the house where Hillary lived and it is drawing more visitors to this substantial and decidedly Republican neighborhood than it has since, well, since Hillary Diane Rodham became the Democrats' first lady.

That's when the national media discovered this gracious, leafy suburb and the stately Georgian home at 235 Wisner St. where the Republican Hillary grew up. Although that Hillary doesn't exist anymore--at least not politically--the house, and the stolid, Midwestern values it represents, does.

So it was with a good amount of partisan-free pride that this sleepy northwestern suburb tried to join in Chicago's lavish homecoming for Hugh and Dorothy Rodham's little girl. But when the mayor invited her to tea in her old hometown, the White House declined.

That may have led to some grumbling around town, but not on the street where she lived.

Kathy Hendrickson, 42, who happened to be pausing in front of the former Rodham home when a reporter stopped to ask for directions, said there was plenty of interest in Hillary's roots: "Just because she grew up to be a Democrat doesn't mean we should forget her or her home's place in history, does it?"

Although she was born in Chicago and lived in an apartment at 5722 N. Winthrop until 1951, Hillary Rodham moved here at age 4 and, for that reason, is claimed by Park Ridge as its most famous daughter.

Not that such pride will translate into many votes for President Clinton in November. With a median family income of more than $60,000 and a long tradition of political, as well as architectural, conservatism, the suburb can be expected to cast most of its votes for Bob Dole.

In fact, had Hillary grown up to be a Republican first lady, Park Ridge Mayor Ronald W. Wietecha likes to tell reporters, there would likely be a shrine to her. As it is, an effort in 1992 to hang her portrait in the local library caused such a fuss that the plan was shelved.

Shoddy treatment indeed for the girl voted most likely to succeed by the 1965 class of Maine Township High School. Last year, the first lady hosted some 460 former classmates at a reunion in Washington. And while that smoothed a few of the feathers ruffled by her infrequent visits, it hasn't brought her home.

When Hillary Clinton made her entrance at Chicago's Navy Pier on Sunday night--having jumped off the president's slow-moving train for her own whistle-stop tour of the convention city--she floated in on the four-masted schooner "Windy" with some of her closest high school girlfriends at her side.

Although she has stayed in touch with such longtime friends as Penne Decker Huxtable, who still lives and works in Park Ridge, Hillary never really came home again after leaving for Wellesley College and, later, Yale Law School. Politically, she left home in 1966, when she shed the last vestiges of her town's and parents' Republicanism.

As the head of the membership committee of the local Youth for Goldwater in 1964 and winner of the Daughters of the American Revolution citizenship award, Hillary Rodham was "on the right path," Wietecha says. But she strayed in the 1960s, when she spoke out against the Vietnam War, and wandered even further from the trail when she publicly offered encouraging words to Tom Hayden and other "outside agitators" on trial for conspiracy after the Democrats' 1968 Chicago convention.

But, according to one longtime resident of Hillary's girlhood neighborhood, the last straw for some in this tradition-bound community was "when she got married and wouldn't take her husband's name." According to the patrician-looking woman in her 70s who declined to give her name, "That was really a bit much for us. And then, of course, when it came time for an election and her husband needed her to do it, she took his name. It's not something I really approve of."

But closer to the center of Park Ridge, where the aged brick buildings and elegant plantings look much the way they did 30 years ago, remarks about Hillary are kinder and gentler.

"She's a Methodist, always has been since she grew up here," said Randall MacMoran, 69. "And if she campaigned for [Eugene] McCarthy [in 1968] and got to the White House by marrying a Democrat, so be it. Her values haven't changed. Her values are like ours."

Since her arrival in Chicago, Hillary Clinton has been enthusiastically, even worshipfully, received at every stop. From the "Hill-a-ree, Hill-a-ree!" chants of Mexican American children in Pilsen to the hugs and kisses at the Women Win '96 rally at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel, the first lady's homecoming has been heart-warming.

But it is still some distance from home. As she waits for daughter Chelsea and the president to join her in the Sheraton's vast Presidential Suite, Hillary Rodham Clinton might be feeling just a tiny bit homesick for the old neighborhood.

When White House pastry chefs surprised her last Christmas with a 70-pound gingerbread replica of the house at Wisner and Elm streets, the first lady was moved to tears.

"I realized right away that this was my house," she said, "the one I grew up in. . . ."

And the one she will never forget.

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