CAMBRIDGE — He was a year younger than most of his classmates, a state-school graduate and devout Catholic from the Midwest suddenly surrounded by Ivy Leaguers on a secular East Coast campus.
It was clear, when Tim Kaine arrived at Harvard Law School in the fall of 1979, that he was not exactly in his natural element. And it didn’t take long for him to lose faith in his chosen field on the cutthroat campus of career-minded law students.
Nearing the end of his first year, he walked into the dean’s office and announced that he was going on a Jesuit mission to Honduras.
“He had a crisis of purpose during his first year in law school when he realized most of his fellow classmates went on to become corporate lawyers with practices and principles with which he didn’t agree,” said Scott Brown, a New Hampshire energy investor who met Kaine on their first day of law school. “I encouraged him to veer off.”
Kaine’s bumpy years at Harvard helped clarify what he wanted — and didn’t want — in life, friends said, and introduced him to some of the issues, like the death penalty, that he would later confront as a governor, senator, and, now, Democratic vice presidential nominee.
On a campus brimming with aspiring politicians, no one predicted Kaine would run for office, let alone second-in-command at the White House. He listened to Frank Zappa and Elvis Costello, talked earnestly about the women’s movement, racial injustice, and human rights, and spent part of his free time representing prisoners in parole and disciplinary hearings.
“He stood out by the things he didn’t do — which was spend all of his time trying to impress you somewhat desperately, which is a characteristic of the majority of the people who graduate from Harvard Law School,” said Brian Koukoutchos, a fellow member of the class of 1983. “That’s one of the things that made him likable and genuine.”
While living in an apartment on Ellery Street in Cambridge, and playing intramural softball and football, he bonded with a group of classmates over Wednesday night dinners at Chang Feng in Somerville.
“We were not going to be going to big law firms, and weren’t driven by money,” said Evan Wolfson, president of the gay rights group Freedom to Marry, who met Kaine during their third year of law school. “We wanted to make a difference, and that was a big part of our friendship.”
The son of a metal shop owner, Kaine arrived at Harvard after graduating from Rockhurst High School, a Jesuit boys’ school in Kansas City, and the University of Missouri, which he completed in three years.
“I had never set foot on campus till the day I showed up for the first day of classes and it was a bit of a culture shock going from the Midwest — where I had spent my life and I hadn’t done very much traveling at all — to go to law school in Cambridge,” he said in a recent C-SPAN interview.
Motivated by Catholic teachings, he joined the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project, which provides free legal representation to inmates.
“He was a little unusual in the group of law school students who were interested in social justice issues in that he was so clearly committed to his faith,” said John J. Butler, a classmate and friend. “I thought it was admirable — a little different — but admirable.”
But, privately, Kaine was disillusioned with Harvard.
“I remember thinking two things: Why am I rushing? Life is long. . . . And also, I don’t really know what I want to do with my life, and everybody else seems so sure,” he told C-SPAN.
That is when he decided to head to Honduras with the Jesuits. But when he arrived in 1980, the missionaries had little use for his training in contracts and torts.
“They said, ‘OK, Harvard Law School? That has precisely zero relevance to anything we’re doing,’” Kaine said. “‘But didn’t your dad do something in the trades?’ And when I told them what he did, they said, ‘OK, you’re going to run our vocational school.’ ”
After nine months teaching Hondurans carpentry and welding, Kaine returned to Harvard, where a classmate named Anne Holton, the daughter of a former Virginia governor, asked him to rejoin the Prison Legal Assistance Project.
“She claims she was not only trying to convince me to come back, but pretty quickly was trying to convince me to pay attention to her,” Kaine said in the C-SPAN interview.
During a study group, she brought him homemade chocolate-chip cookies.
“Her side of the story is, from the day of those chocolate-chip cookies, I was a goner,” Kaine said. “I don’t remember the chocolate-chip cookies, but I remember her very well.”
The two became a nearly inseparable pair on campus. Kaine, meanwhile, became a more prominent activist.
In March 1982, he organized classmates to lobby against the reinstatement of capital punishment in Massachusetts, invoking the state’s dark history of death sentences from the Salem witch trials to the Sacco and Vanzetti case.
“If we’re trying to teach that killing is wrong, the death penalty isn’t the way to accomplish that goal,” Kaine told the student newspaper, the Harvard Law Record, in an article that featured his efforts.
Years later, as governor of Virginia, he would preside over 11 executions, saying he was sworn to uphold the law, even ones he disagreed with.
In October 1982, after Lebanese militiamen allied with Israel massacred Palestinians in two refugee camps, Kaine signed a petition published in the Harvard Law Record that said that, while the signatories were “deeply disturbed” by the slaughter, “we believe it is especially important at this time to reaffirm our strong commitment to Israel’s inalienable right to exist.”
Brian Wolfman, a classmate, recalled that Kaine also helped set up a phone bank to ask students who had landed summer jobs at corporate law firms to donate part of their salary to students who worked for nonprofits and community groups.
“Tim was very good at it,” said Wolfman, recalling what amounted to Kaine’s early introduction to political fund-raising. “He was able to convince people to give a portion — two or three percent — and it ended up being enough.”
Kaine and Holton graduated in 1983, and were married a year later.
Kaine spent the next 17 years as a lawyer and then entered Virginia politics, advancing from the Richmond City Council, to the mayor’s office, to the governor’s mansion where his wife had lived when her father, A. Linwood Holton, led the state in the early 197os.
Kaine, who was elected to the Senate in 2012, has called Governor Holton, a Republican who helped desegregate Virginia’s schools, “my political hero.”
Along the way, he and a small group of law school classmates remained close friends (Kaine sang the Beatles song “In My Life” at Wolfman’s wedding).
Some of those friends flew to Philadelphia last week and watched from the audience on Wednesday night as the curly-haired classmate they once knew accepted the Democratic nomination for vice president on a ticket with Hillary Clinton.
“If you had asked me who would have been the least likely person to go into elected politics, he would have been the one,” Brown said. “It is shockingly encouraging that someone of his deep commitment and just general decency has gotten to that level.”Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.