DETROIT (MCT) — Today, it would certainly be bullying — perhaps even worse.
But 45 years ago, nothing happened to Mitt Romney when he used scissors to cut off the long blond hair of a fellow student who was widely thought to be gay while that student was pinned down by other classmates at Cranbrook school in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
Romney initially told The Washington Post that he didn’t recall the incident. But in a Fox News radio interview Thursday, he said: “Back in high school, I did some dumb things. And if anybody was hurt by that or offended by that, I apologize. There is no question I became a very different person since then.”
Romney emphasized that he had no idea the other student was gay. “I certainly don’t believe that I thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s.”
How much will it — or should it — matter now, with Romney on the brink of claiming the Republican nomination to be president of the United States?
Political circles were buzzing about that Thursday after the Post reported the incident atop a lengthy account of Romney’s Cranbrook years.
“I suspect people will cut him some slack because just about everyone has done something they regret in high school,” said West Bloomfield political consultant Steve Mitchell. “Anyone who didn’t do something stupid in high school has the right to criticize him, but that group of people could probably fill a phone booth.”
But Lansing consultant Craig Ruff said the incident, especially in light of highly visible recent cases of bullying, could tarnish Romney.
“Say what you will about a person’s indiscretion in youth, but bullying, which at that point in time may have been seen as a prank, today seems like a much bigger deal in the public’s mind,” he said.
Back then, Romney was a 17-year-old senior, living at Cranbrook full time, while his family, led by then-Gov. George Romney, lived in Lansing. The other student, John Lauber, was a quiet junior from Indiana who sported a mop of bleached blond hair, almost unheard of at the time, when the Beatles were just making longer hair styles trendy for young men.
Lauber’s hair defied the staid, button-down image of the private school in Bloomfield Hills, where the students were required to wear suit coats and ties every day.
“I truly believe that John Lauber, by wearing his hair real long, it was his statement of difference. At that time in the fairly conformist environment of Cranbrook, it marked him as out of the mainstream,” said David Seed, a junior at Cranbrook at the time and now a retired educator living in North Carolina.
Seed was drawn to the incident by the sound of Lauber begging the other teens to stop tormenting him. Seed said he didn’t think much of it at the time and didn’t connect it to bullying until much later when he was a school principal having to deal with hazing incidents that were sometimes vicious.
“The incident had been on my mind and in my heart for years,” Seed said. So when he ran into Lauber at an airport years later, he came clean.
“I said I’m sorry about that. And that I can’t believe I didn’t do anything to step in and stop it,” Seed said. “He told me it was a horrible experience. It really frightened him and impacted his life. But I felt like it was a cleansing of my soul about the whole thing.”
Lauber, who died in 2004, left Cranbrook that spring after getting caught smoking and didn’t return for his senior year. His sisters told the Post that he never told them about the incident.
Cranbrook has no report of the incident and doesn’t make student records public. No teachers or administrators from that time remain at the school, said Clay Matthews, spokesman for Cranbrook.
Bullying wasn’t a part of the culture at Cranbrook, said Romney classmate Stuart White of Ann Arbor. But the insular environment without much diversity at the all-boys school created a sense of privilege for much of the student body.
“Living with boys all the time can be a breeding ground for stupid behavior,” White said. “But do we judge someone on something they did when they were 17?”
Sidney Barthwell, a magistrate in 36th District Court and the only African American in the class of 1965 at Cranbrook, said his experience at the school was mostly positive, but the times — right on the cusp of the civil rights movement — were so different.
When he wanted to take a co-ed dance class at Kingswood, the all-girls school at Cranbrook, “ the administration had to check with all the parents to make sure it was OK for a Negro to participate in the dance class.”
And when many in his senior class headed south for spring break, Barthwell was told he shouldn’t go because of the racial strife in the region.
“Coming from the inner city of Detroit, it was like culture shock for me. It was beyond night and day,” said Barthwell, who would go on to finish a bachelor’s degree at Wayne State University and attend Harvard Law School at the same time as President Barack Obama. “I would have rather gone to Cass Tech. I was a basketball player and wanted to play in the public school league. But Cranbrook was a tremendous educational experience for me.”
Barthwell doesn’t judge any of his teachers or classmates for any subtle digs he may have encountered during those years at Cranbrook, and he sees Romney as “a nice guy.”
“He was kind of silly at times, but in a harmless sort of way,” he said.