A girl who soared, but longed to belong
Elizabeth Warren grew up amid the infinite expanse of Oklahoma, the finite expectations of her place and time, and financial pain at home. The lessons of those years still drive her.
First in a series of occasional articles examining the life stories and careers of the Massachusetts candidates for US Senate.
OKLAHOMA CITY - The father and daughter had an unspoken arrangement. Her classmates would not see the car. He would drop her off a block away from Northwest Classen High School, so they wouldn’t notice that things had “gone down.’’
For a teenage Elizabeth Warren, then known as Liz Herring, the old off-white Studebaker was the most tangible sign that her family was struggling to maintain the trappings of middle-class life that marked Oklahoma City in the early 1960s.
The air-conditioned bronze Oldsmobile that had once ferried her to high school was gone - lost when the family stopped making payments after her father had a heart attack and got demoted to a job that paid much less.
Her mother had gone back to work to keep the family afloat, but she resented having to do so and wasn’t shy about saying so. Money, or the want of it, was suddenly a source of pain, acid in the air.
For a teenaged Warren, the clunky old Studebaker was one more piece of evidence that she didn’t quite fit in, even as she joined the Sterling Tea Service Club and the Cygnets pep squad.
“I was in a high school where everybody was a click better off,’’ Warren recalled.
“It’s not just that they had so much,’’ she said. “They were just confident. They had the assurance that it would always be there.’’
Money, and the anxiety it can create for families like the one she grew up in, has consumed Warren ever since. It is the focus of her books about struggling middle-class families, her work at Harvard on bankruptcy law, her Washington service as President Obama’s consumer protection adviser, and, now, her campaign for the US Senate.
The seeds of that worry, that fear of not having enough, were planted on the Oklahoma plains. Financial comfort has since come to her, along with professional success - her Harvard salary alone exceeds $350,000. But money has, in her mind, always been about much more than dollar bills. It has been shorthand for security, acceptance, and family stability.
On the campaign trail, she has described her childhood as teetering on “the ragged edge of the middle class,’’ and she has told a story of a family that was “kind of hanging on at the edges by our fingernails.’’
Those descriptions fit, but behind the catch phrases lies a more layered story. The Herring family was down, no doubt, and battered by money worries, but never desperate.
On the trail, she never mentions the Studebaker. Instead, she tells voters, “We lost our car and my mom went to work at Sears answering phones so that we could hang on to our house’’ - leaving the impression on some ears that the family had no car at all.
By the time Warren turned 16, about four years after her father’s heart attack, her family had rebounded some, to the point that it had three cars, including a beat-up white MG bought with a $200 loan. Warren would drive it across Route 66 for a burger and a Dr. Pepper at the Charcoal Oven.
Living ‘the American way’
Oklahoma’s broad flat surfaces can seem limitless.
The expanses of deep red earth are broken up by occasional oil pump jacks, the region’s tangible economic engines. The houses in and around Warren’s Oklahoma City are a mishmash of styles and sizes, freed from the type of zoning laws that would prevent a neo-Colonial from popping up next to a plain brick ranch. It was, when Warren was a child, a place organized around sturdy hopes, pride of place, and quiet conformity.
And the culture was then, as now, deeply religious and deeply conservative. Warren’s family attended a Methodist church, where her mother taught Sunday school.
“It was a pretty provincial town of true believers,’’ said Joe Pryor, an Oklahoma City realtor who competed with Warren on the high school debate team.
“We believed in the American way. We believed in the system. We got emotional at the flag salute,’’ added Pryor during an interview on one of two visits the Globe made to Oklahoma to track down Warren’s classmates and learn more about how her childhood helped shaped the lawyer, the professor, and the candidate she would become.
“I kidded my dad that he would be a John Bircher except he would never pay the dues,’’ said Dr. Linda Cordell Leckman, a health care executive in Utah who went to high school with Warren. “That was kind of the environment . . . folks who had worked very hard, been through the Depression, been through the Dust Bowl.’’
Warren’s family came to Oklahoma at the end the 19th century, part of the land rush that preceded statehood.
Her grandmother, Hannie Crawford Reed, who had already lost her own mother, drove a horse-drawn wagon from Missouri to the territory at the age of 13, according to family lore. Hannie’s father rode ahead on a horse.
“Her little brothers and sisters were bouncing around in the back of a wagon,’’ Warren said of her grandmother, who lived to age 94. “That woman made life happen.’’
Elizabeth Warren’s father, Donald J. Herring, was a largely self-taught pilot who worked as a civilian instructor during World War II, moving his wife, Pauline, and their boys from Muskogee to Tulsa and beyond.
But her father then lost his life savings to a business partner in a car dealership, the beginning of a string of setbacks.
By the time Warren was born in 1949, eight years after the youngest of three boys, her father had a job as a salesman for Montgomery Ward in Oklahoma City, and the family had resettled in Norman, a college town about 20 miles away that had served as a Navy training site during the war.
Her parents moved there to take advantage of cheap housing, and they hoped that her brothers would attend the nearby University of Oklahoma so they could live at home to save money.
In the end, none of their children would graduate from the university, and only Liz would graduate from college at all.
Amid the wheat fields
The strip malls and interstates that now crowd the “Tull Addition’’ neighborhood in Norman wouldn’t come for decades. Back then it was wheat fields and open prairie.
Homes on Haddock Street were modest, with only the occasional elm tree or mistletoe vine to brighten the otherwise unadorned yards.
The Herrings lived in a corner house with a faux yellow brick facade, the converted garage used as a third bedroom at times by the boys, while Liz - Betsy at home - got the inside bedroom.
If it was a little drab, the children didn’t know it. They spent afternoons running in and out of the fields, their ears trained for the screech of the alarm that signaled a tornado could be coming.
“This is gravel, but it used to be wheat fields. Our backyard was just wheat fields,’’ Warren said on a visit to Norman late last year, as she walked around her old front yard and pointed down the street naming families that used to live there. She was in town to collect an award and hold a fund-raiser and agreed to take a drive to her childhood home.
Life in Norman revolved around church and the military, in that order, with many veterans still active in the reserves, according to Cherrie Birden, who was three years ahead of Warren and is the principal at her old school. Politics was seldom discussed at the dinner tables. Neither was the world beyond Norman.
In the 1950s, the height of the baby boom, Woodrow Wilson Elementary School was so bustling with war babies that some classes were held in houses at the edge of the school property, Birden said.
As Warren recalls it, her first glimpse that there was a larger world beyond the wheat fields came from an unlikely source - the actor James Garner. Then the star of the hit TV western “Maverick,’’ Garner had attended Warren’s elementary school and had an aunt who taught there. His return visit in the late 1950s was nothing short of a revelation. The biggest heartthrob on television was coming back.
“I realized there were possibilities in this world,’’ she said. “You could get from here to there.’’
He touched 8-year-old Warren on the shoulder. She bragged. She argued with her friend over whose eyes met his the longest.
Aspirations and setbacks
Another hint of that broader world emerged three years later and about 20 miles north in Oklahoma City, where the family moved.
In the bigger city, she would find a group of intellectually elite students on the high school debate team and the first taste of ambition that would later drive her career. But she would also begin to see her family’s financial limitations more vividly and feel more vulnerable.
In Norman, everybody’s house was about the same size. In Oklahoma City, there were children with nicer clothes and bigger homes. And Warren was getting old enough to notice the differences.
She remembers thinking that if her family could hold it together financially, she could fit in. She could sew her clothes to look like the ones at the department store.
Her parents had bought a three-bedroom home that was a bit of a step up from the one in Norman, even if the pair of white columns in front showed an aspiration to grandeur that the white brick two-story house could not quite pull off. Still, it was on the edge of the district for one of the state’s top schools, which meant that Elizabeth, the precocious one with so much drive, had a clear path to college.
But that fragile plan nearly collapsed on a cold November Sunday. While her father was working on the car, he felt a harsh chest pain, a heart attack.
“Daddy came home, gray and shaking, and he sat around the house for weeks,’’ she wrote in one of her books.
He gradually recovered physically, but was forced to take a new position at work that cut his salary in half. As medical expenses piled up, the family stopped making payments on the Oldsmobile. Saving the house became the focus, and a persistent source of stress.
Warren’s mother, Pauline, returned to work answering telephones at Sears. Warren remembers watching, in the upstairs bedroom, as her mother crammed her body into a girdle and an old black dress, crying.
“She finally got it zipped up and she turned to me and she said, ‘Is this dress too tight?’ And I can remember looking at her and thinking, ‘Yeah this dress is too tight,’ ’’ Warren recalled.
But Warren, then about 12, knew she couldn’t say it, “not to someone who’s about to go try and save our house.’’
“I said she looked great,’’ Warren recalled.
Her mother was angry and worried, certain they would fall behind on the mortgage if she did not go back to work. Other women had jobs in that era, “but for my family, my mother going to work was a sign of failure.’’
Warren’s father began talking less.
“I knew to my bones he was humiliated by what he couldn’t do,’’ she said. “My mother made it clear that he had failed. She was not hesitant about saying any part of this at full throat. She would really hammer him about this and he never, ever, ever fought back, pushed back, said anything. He just pulled more within himself.’’
Warren didn’t intervene. She stayed out of the way, so her mother wouldn’t yell at her. She clenched her teeth so as not to let on that she was scared.
“My mother was really angry,’’ she said. “She felt like she had been cheated. She had made a deal in life and it hadn’t worked out that way.’’
The family kept the house - and with it her spot in the elite public high school - even if they had to make their own repairs when a chunk of plaster fell from the living room ceiling.
Stepping into a larger universe
Northwest Classen High School was located near one of the more prosperous sections of the city. Its students were known as “Silkies’’ because, according to local lore, people thought they must wear silk underwear and sleep on silk sheets.
Warren was a slight girl - a year younger than most because she had skipped sixth grade - with a bob of brown hair. The school was vast, with nearly 1,000 students in her class.
Although Warren often says in interviews that she never knew lawyers until she went to law school, many of her classmates were the children of professionals, including a close friend whose father was a real estate attorney.
“It was sort of the socialite school . . . the cream of the crop,’’ said Bob Hammack, a classmate who now runs an advertising agency in Oklahoma City. “It was not a question of are you going to college, but where.’’
That was the reputation, at least, although Hammack and others who attended said there were certainly plenty of less affluent students.
Many in Warren’s school said they were unaware of the Herring family’s financial struggles and wouldn’t have cared much if they had known. Such matters weren’t a topic of polite conversation.
“There are certain things you just don’t talk about in the South,’’ said Katrina Harry Cochran, an Oklahoma psychologist who was friends with Warren in high school. “And one of them is why your mother has to work.’’
Race relations, although rising to a boil nationally, was a topic that lay largely in the background in Warren’s world.
By the time she graduated high school in 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. had marched on Washington, bringing to the nation’s center stage a debate over racial segregation and equality.
But the social revolution that was beginning to convulse America came much later to Oklahoma. Long after the Supreme Court ordered schools desegregated in 1955, Northwest Classen remained all white. Hers was the last era before Oklahoma would be riled by school busing that would integrate and transform her school.
Like much of the country’s middle, the culture there remained tethered to an earlier time. A daily prayer was still recited in the morning, with Liz one of the readers. And the ideals of domestic perfection were underscored. The home economics classroom at Northwest Classen school had a wood-paneled living room for the girls to decorate and a make-up table so they could learn proper hygiene and presentation.
Warren has said she seldom had friends over because she did not want them to see her house. Seldom wasn’t never, however. Suzanne Pope, a friend from the debate team who now lives in San Diego, remembers dancing with boys to Johnny Mathis in the Herring’s living room on 25th Street.
“There were no parents around and I thought, ‘Ooh, isn’t this cool?’ ’’ Pope recalled.
Within the school, Warren found what would become an express ticket to college and a place to fit in, the debate team. It was full of the most motivated students, and put her in contact with peers from throughout the country. In a more serious way than James Garner’s visit, debate awakened within Warren a notion that she could thrive in a larger universe.
On school nights and many weekends, she would be consumed. Two-person debate, the most serious competition, required students to spend a year researching one complex policy question. Warren’s topics were nuclear disarmament one year, Medicare another.
“It is a very intense experience,’’ said Karl Johnson, an attorney in New Mexico who teamed with Warren to win a state championship.
By senior year, her team would travel about twice a month - Tahlequah one weekend, Enid the next - and down into Houston. Warren said she quietly bowed out of some tournaments because she could not afford the hotels.
But the family finances were not as bad as they had been. Her parents bought the 8-year-old MG, which she would use to get to debate practice.
Her teammates remember a focus and an analytical mind.
“She had a remarkable ability to distill arguments to their core,’’ Johnson said.
Forty years later, they still stand out. “I have seen her give some of the greatest first affirmative rebuttals in my life,’’ he recalled.
Warren has said she was a rarity as a girl on the debate team, but the yearbook shows boys on the team only slightly outnumbered the girls.
If debate expanded her worldview, it also made 1960s Oklahoma feel much smaller.
Terry Farmer, a debater who graduated a year after Warren, said the more they learned, the more stifling the teenagers found the local culture.
“The debate teams tended to be guys who thought a little more, who got out a little more, who saw a little more of the world and who decided they didn’t want to live with that any more and wanted to move,’’ said Farmer, an attorney in New Mexico.
Johnson, Warren’s debate partner, made headlines in Oklahoma when he served as “governor for the day’’ and slammed the Vietnam War. But he was the exception. The antiwar movement had yet to take hold there.
Warren and her family saw Vietnam in personal, not political terms. Her older brother Don was in and out of combat over a six-year period. They worried about him, Warren recalled, but did not question the mission. Warren registered as a Republican as a young adult but said she did not yet see the world through a political lens.
“It’s not like somebody said, ‘Should we support or oppose?’ Of course we supported the war. This was our family that was there, our country. That was just how we saw it,’’ she said.
By the time the antiwar movement swept Oklahoma’s college campuses in the late 1960s, Warren was gone. At 16, she graduated and won a debate scholarship to George Washington University, 1,400 miles away, which she attended for two years before marrying and transferring to the University of Houston.
Many of the other youngsters from her neighborhood went to one of the two big state colleges, the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. But Warren did not even apply.
“They left to continue their same lives, lives of pep clubs and football games,’’ Warren said. “I had to go somewhere else. I couldn’t go off to OU. I couldn’t maintain the fiction anymore, not at OU, not there, not with kids living in dorms and buying formals for dances.’’
Warren returns to Oklahoma often to visit her brothers and her cousins. She would eventually buy a house for her parents, who are now deceased. But she has never been to a reunion, never visited the friends she had in high school, and has maintained only sporadic contact.
“It doesn’t make me happy to go back and talk about how great high school was,’’ she said.