'She had a strong drive': How high school made Hillary Clinton a presidential contender

As Hillary Clinton takes on the U.S. Democratic Party's nomination for president, high school classmates from Park Ridge, Ill., recall a young woman with drive and ambition coming of age at a time of change for all women.

Classmates remember young woman who saw no boundaries limiting what she could do

Hillary Clinton, shown left in the 1965 Maine South High School yearbook from Park Ridge, Ill., will speak to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 28, accepting the party's nomination as its candidate for the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (Maine South High School yearbook/William Philpott/Reuters)

Maine South High School sits in a leafy upper middle class suburb of Park Ridge, just below the flight path planes take to land at Chicago's O'Hare airport. If you are searching for a time and place that shaped the now-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, the school is not a bad place to start.

It's not significantly different from when the school opened back in the 1964 — except for several plaques and photographs hanging on a lobby wall marking the most accomplished graduates, among them a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a U.S. District Court judge and Clinton.

Hillary Clinton (then Rodham), bottom left, took part in numerous high school activities and was one of 11 seniors who were finalists in the National Merit Scholarship Program in 1964. (Maine South High School yearbook)

In many ways, her story at Maine South High suggests she was already a leader. Clinton — then Hillary Rodham — was elected most likely to succeed in her final year, a serious, motivated student already drawn to leadership roles.  

Cheryl Harbour graduated with Clinton in 1965. During a brief visit to the school recently, she pulled a yearbook from the library shelf, a record of her graduating year, and helped point to early clues of Clinton's drive.

"There's one here, this is a science award," said Cheryl, as she made her way through the pages.  

"Here's another one … she was on the academic team. And here she was in the National Honour Society.

Hillary Clinton's High School Yearbook

7 years ago
Duration 1:11
Featured VideoA former high school classmate of Hillary Clinton shows us her year book.

"I would say that she had a strong drive that was similar to other people," said Cheryl. "I think hers kept getting stronger. And I think she had a pretty serious focus during high school, whereas a lot of people that were active were more in it for the social reasons."

Cheryl, at the time Cheryl Acton, was part of a crew of good friends, Hillary Clinton among them. There was also Betsy Johnson and Judy Price. Together they shared an experience of young women growing up at that particular time. They were products of a 1950s old world that was also on the cusp of a women's movement and a sense of infinite possibility for them.     

Cheryl, Betsy and Judy have built their own families and are now grandmothers like Clinton. They still live close to their old high school and occasionally get together, sometimes marvelling how it is that one of them could soon be president.

It may be reasonable in some ways, given they are the generation of women who were the first to get college degrees and head into the workforce en masse. 

Judy Price, a high school classmate of Hillary Clinton, says: 'There were things that boys did and things that girls did and I didn’t ever - it never dawned on me - to think about it in terms of … being deprived or anything.' (CBC)

For these women, this week holds a whole other level of meaning, as Clinton officially accepts the Democratic Party's nomination for U.S. president.

Cheryl, Betsy and Judy recently got together and discussed their time together growing up. While the culture in Park Ridge was nurturing for them, they also remember clear differences when it came to gender.

Classmate Betsy Johnson also remembers Hillary Clinton, along with another young woman, ran for class president at Maine South High School and did not win. 'They didn’t win because they were girls,' she says. (CBC)

Looking back, Betsy asks the group: "Who always won as president of student council? What did you have to be in order to win as president of student council?" 

Judy volunteered: "A boy." 

Betsy also remembers Clinton, along with another young woman, ran for class president and did not win.

"They didn't win because they were girls," said Betsy.

"They didn't win because they were girls" | Former Classmates on Hillary Clinton's Early Political Life

7 years ago
Duration 0:44
Featured VideoFormer classmates of Hillary Clinton talk about her early political aspirations.

Judy goes onto recall: "There were things that boys did and things that girls did, and I didn't ever, it never dawned on me, to think about it in terms of … being deprived or anything. It was just that was just the way it was."

Betsy added: "It was how we also viewed the outside world."

Leslie Bennetts, a veteran journalist and author who has written about Clinton and covered women's issues since the 1970s, says Clinton's era as a young woman reflects a culture that was changing for women.

"The strange thing about those of us who were boomers is that we grew up in the old world. We grew up in a world where we were told to ask a boy about his interests, and where we didn't have real professional aspirations because the only thing that a girl could be was a secretary, a nurse or a teacher," says Bennetts.

Journalist Leslie Bennetts says the era when Hillary Clinton came of age was an 'exhilarating time and the message in the air was you can go and do these things that women have never done before.' (CBC)

"And then all of a sudden it was like somebody flipped a switch and the whole world changed overnight. Our generation, we were going to law school, we were going to medical school, we were becoming journalists and doing all these things that women had never done before.

"It was a very exhilarating time and the message in the air was you can go and do these things that women have never done before." 

Clinton took that cue. Her old pals remember a person who saw no boundaries and left their secure Illinois suburb to attend Wellesley College, a private all women's school in the small town of Wellesley, Mass.

Betsy remembers visits by car to Wellesley and other schools in the East, with Clinton's cantankerous, tobacco-chewing father at the wheel of a "big old Lincoln."

"He would drive that. And we'd pull up to a stoplight and the door would open and he would spit, close the door," remembers Betsy.

"And then he'd wait for us, we'd go in. And you had to wear white gloves. I mean we never went any place without heels and white gloves. And so [the recruiters] talked her into Wellesley."

Clinton's years at Wellesley College are now remembered for her speech to her graduating class. The moment was chronicled in Life magazine and cemented her young fame.

A portion of the audio was only recently released. It is curious to hear the sound of Clinton's voice at that age. Her ideas seem jumbled at times but there's no sense of self-doubt in her tone. She is poised and self-assured.

Her friends recently listened to a clip from that speech.

"She sounds just like [her daughter] Chelsea. She could give this speech today," says Betsy. 

Cheryl adds: "It's not a timid speech for a young woman to be addressing an audience at large. It's pretty bold and confident."

After graduating from Wellesley, Clinton went onto Yale Law School. Her confidence and ambition marked her student days, and for that matter, much of her political career. 

But it is those traits that have also been the target of mockery, as some analysts compare Clinton to the fictional character Tracy Flick.  

In the film Election, a dark satire about high school politics, Flick is the ultimate over-achiever. While fun is meant in the comparison between Clinton and Flick, many believe it's proof the United States continues to have difficulty with ambitious women.

"Of course it's sexist," says Bennetts. 

"But the truth is, in life, we have a terrible time with high-achieving women. We just don't know what to do about them, so we want to reduce them to being a Tracy Flick character. You're allowed to try hard if it's like improving your appearance.

"There's no limit to how much you're supposed to work in terms of dieting and perfecting your abs. But we don't like women who try too hard on things where they might outshine the boys," says Bennetts.

"And I think that's a shame because a woman like that who is so driven to excellence, we should be saying, isn't that great? You go girl. Let's give her credit for what she's achieved. But instead we're always trying to knock her down a peg."

Hillary Clinton, centre, gets together on occasion with classmates from Maine South High School in Park Ridge, Ill. (Submitted by Betsy (Johnson) Ebling)

For Clinton's crew of loyal friends in Park Ridge, and for most women of her age group, there's a sense they've walked this walk with her. And if she's elected America's next president, a feeling they played a part in her win.

"We'll take credit for it totally," says Cheryl, with a huge laugh. "A hundred per cent credit, the three of us or individually or something, right? I made her what she is today?"

Betsy adds: "I think the convention will really bring it home to me. That night she accepts will be — yeah — something. Just like we were in high school. Oh yeah, I'll go to college. Oh yeah, she'll be president."

Hillary Clinton, as seen by her high school classmates

7 years ago
Duration 15:03
Featured VideoMeet Hillary Clinton's classmates from the early sixties. They explain what a woman in the White House would mean to them.