Even in college, Donald Trump was brash
PHILADELPHIA — The new student arrived at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school in 1966, driving a Ford convertible and sporting a mop of blond hair as outsized as his ambitions. A junior transfer from Fordham University in the Bronx, the young man was an outsider on the Ivy League campus in Philadelphia, with few friends.
But that did not temper his swagger.
When a professor asked students in his small class why they had chosen to study real estate, the new student stood up.
“I’m going to be the king of New York real estate.”
The professor peered over his glasses and said, “What’s your name, son?”
“I am Donald Trump.”
Some of the other students rolled their eyes.
“Sit down, you [expletive],” Louis Calomaris recalled thinking, with a laugh. “That was our introduction to Donald Trump.”
The brash, blunt, and sometimes bombastic personality that has helped Trump upend the early stages of the 2016 Republican presidential primary campaign — and which has been a hallmark of his business and reality TV entertainment careers — was already in full bloom during his college years, according to more than a dozen Wharton classmates interviewed by the Globe.
“I recognize this person,” said Joseph Cohen, who was in Trump’s tightknit group of real estate students. “He was certainly verbal, and unequivocal. If he had something to say, he said it. Like he says today.”
Calomaris agreed, “The same style, same outspokenness, same braggadocio. It’s quintessentially Don.”
But while Trump frequently boasts that his undergraduate degree from the elite Wharton School demonstrates that he has the brains and knowledge to lead the nation — “like, super genius stuff,’’ in his words — he appears to have left little impression on the school itself, outside a small orbit of fellow students.
His former classmates said he seemed a student who spoke up a lot but rarely shined in class, who barely participated in campus activities, shunned fraternity parties, and spent most of his spare time pursuing his dream: using his advantages as the son of a prominent New York real estate developer to get an early start on the business career that would make him very, very rich.
Unlike many of the students around him, who hoped to enrich themselves the old-fashioned way — that is, quietly — Trump had an in-your-face attitude about his quest for money from his first day on campus, said his former classmates.
“Was he a little into himself? Yeah, he was the Donald,” said William Specht. “Even then, he was a little into himself. He had the confidence.”
Yet even as he trumpets his connections to the school, he is anything but legendary on the campus. Few people there today even realize he attended and, having made no major donations to the school he and three of his children attended, there is no Trump Hall or Trump-titled anything at Penn.
“I had a really great experience. They were terrific people, a lot of smart people,” Trump said in an interview with the Globe about his college years. “One of the things it does is it gives you confidence. You’re with the smartest people, and you’re able to do very well with the smartest people. When you come out, you feel good about yourself.”
Told that the Globe had contacted a number of the nearly 300 members of his graduating class, Trump said, “I hope they said good things about me generally, huh? They should. I mean what’s not to say good about?”
Even before arriving on the leafy campus at the University of Pennsylvania, Trump had some cause for confidence. During his high school years at New York Military Academy, a boarding school for boys 60 miles north of Manhattan, he stood out as an athlete, pitching for the baseball team and playing tight end on the football team. He also played soccer on a team dominated by students from Latin America, and was voted class “Ladies Man’’ by his all-male peers.
Among his duties was storing and maintaining the M1 rifles for the cadets on his dorm floor. He was so meticulous about cleanliness that one former roommate remembers him folding his underwear into squares and stacking them neatly on the shelf.
Some of his childhood friends said Trump’s blunt speaking style may be rooted in his years at the military academy, where he was sent at age 13 after some disciplinary issues. (He punched his second-grade music teacher, he wrote in a 1987 book, because he didn’t think the teacher knew enough about music.)
“Honesty and straightforwardness was the rule of law” at the academy, said Ted Levine, one of Trump’s high school roommates who now runs a packaging and supply company in New Jersey. “It got ingrained in us that you don’t lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those who do . . . You just say the way it is.”
During rides home from school on a Port Authority bus, the young Donald would point out all the buildings built by his father, Fred Trump, a well-known developer who specialized in apartment complexes.
“We’d go through Queens and he’d say, ‘My dad, he built all those homes over there,’ ” said Specht, a Trump classmate in high school as well as at Wharton who went on to a career in investment banking. “He’d look out, very proud.”
Trump said in the interview that it was his having spent so much time away from home that led him not to apply to Wharton as a freshman. Instead, he spent his first two college years living at home in Queens and commuting to Fordham.
“I had very good marks. And I was a good student generally speaking,” Trump said. “But I wanted to be home for a couple of years because I was away for five years. So I wanted to spend time home, get to know my family — when you’re away, you’re away right?”
After two years at Fordham, “I got in quickly and easily” to the Wharton undergraduate program, Trump said. “And it’s one of the hardest schools to get into in the country — always has been.”
Around the time Trump was admitted, there were 8,000 candidates vying for 1,700 spots in the freshman class, according to school records. The process could be more difficult for transfer students like Trump. Tuition was $1,770 for the academic year.
Trump arrived on a campus dotted with elm trees and featuring a prominent statue of Benjamin Franklin, surrounded by a combustible and violent city. The campus was gripped by anger over the Vietnam War. Trump received draft deferments while in college and, just after graduation, he was granted a medical deferment for what Trump has since said was bone spurs in his heels.
Trump said he did not participate with his fellow Penn students in antiwar demonstrations. “I wasn’t a fan of the Vietnam War, that I can tell you,” he said. “But I wasn’t a marcher.”
Trump rented an apartment close to campus in a four-story row house that a fellow tenant remembers being infested with cockroaches. The area was so run down that a burned-out car sat out front for weeks before the city finally removed it.
His senior year, Trump lived a few blocks away in an old building about to be condemned and torn down. The rooms were small, with little more than a bed, a closet, and a kitchenette with a small refrigerator and a two-burner stove. It sat across from a popular bar called the Bull and Barrel that offered hamburger specials for 20 cents.
“They weren’t great,” Trump says of his accommodations. “They were old townhouses with 12 units in each, small units.”
He drove a green Ford Fairlane convertible, and had a fondness for fried oysters from an off-campus Howard Johnson’s. He stuck out by carrying a briefcase on campus while most students toted books under their arms.
“I could tell he was different,” said Ted Pollard, who transferred to Wharton the same year as Trump and later founded a health information company. “We were all preppies in our tweed coats and polka dot ties. He was dressed up in a nice sports coat and jacket. He was just more businesslike.”
“He was cut from a different cloth, and it was quite obvious,” he added. “He was more aloof. More focused than we were . . . We were wondering what we wanted to do when we grow up. He was already there.”
Trump had one clear advantage over his peers: a financial head start from his father. With about $2 million in loans from his dad, he confirmed, he started buying up properties in Philadelphia soon after he arrived at Wharton.
“It’s always been a natural instinct,” he said. “I would fix up houses, fix up little buildings. Fix them up and sell them, rent them and live in them, and do all sorts of things with them. Made a little money during college.”
In a review of Philadelphia property records in the 1960s, the Globe couldn’t locate any with Trump’s name, but he said that even then he used aliases to hide his involvement.
“I didn’t want people to know I was buying, because I started to develop a good reputation for being a good buyer,” he said. “Once they start knowing your name, the price goes up. So I would use corporate names or I would use different names. I developed a little reputation for making good deals and I didn’t want them to charge me. If they knew my name, they would have charged me more money. Some things never change.”
Trump said his good track record of flipping properties pleased his father.
“He was always impressed — he was a strong guy, my father — he was always impressed I never failed. I would always buy them and sell them for more than I bought them for.’’
Trump the undergraduate declined invitations to attend frat parties. He didn’t drink alcohol then, and says he still doesn’t. He did not join any extracurricular groups. The man who would later promote his image around the world did not even show up for his college yearbook photo.
In the yearbook’s “class prophecy,’’ with its predictions on where classmates would end up — gossip columnists, surgeons, Olympians, Supreme Court justices, were among the professions named — Trump isn’t mentioned.
“You know, I wasn’t Trump then, you understand?” Trump said. “I was Trump, but I wasn’t Trump.”
One reason for his low profile in campus life was his work schedule and his off-campus ambitions. “He always complained that every weekend he had to go home to New York and work like a dog for his dad. He whined about that,” said Terry Farrell, who had an introductory economics class with Trump. “Every weekend, he’d vanish . . . I felt sorry for him.”
Trump was, however, around enough to take note, like most other men on campus, of one particular student: Candice Bergen, the homecoming queen who would soon trade campus life for Hollywood glamour, before later becoming famous as TV’s Murphy Brown.
“I had seen him around campus,” Bergen recalled in a 1992 address at Penn. “He was pretty hard to miss — he wore a two-piece burgundy suit with matching burgundy patent leather boots and, a particularly nice touch, a matching burgundy limousine.’’
The Donald asked Candice out. She turned him down.
“It’s true,” Trump said in an interview.
“She was so beautiful,” he said. “She was dating guys from Paris, France, who were 35 years old, the whole thing. I did make the move. And I must say she had the good sense to say, ‘Absolutely not.’ ”
Trump did make a big impression on the small group of fellow real estate students. They describe him as cocky but fun, boastful but with a bit of tongue-in-cheek.
“He had strong opinions. He was a confident person. There were only five or six of us in the [real estate] major and a lot of us had strong opinions,” said Cohen, a sports television executive who has continued to work with Trump over the years. “The difference was he had access to real money to make his dreams come true.”
Trump was focused on building a real estate empire, one that would exceed the one his father had already amassed.
“He loved real estate, and loved to talk about it,” said Ted Sachs, who sat next to Trump in finance class and would drive him to HoJo’s. “And he did most of the talking.”
“But he knew a direction and I had none,” added Sachs, who is now a financial adviser working in Illinois and Florida. “He had it. That’s clear.”
Trump says he was well liked. But he himself did not think much of his peers.
“It didn’t take me long to realize that there was nothing particularly awesome or exceptional about my classmates,” Trump wrote in his 1987 book, “The Art of the Deal.” “I could compete with them just fine.”
But Trump was not an exceptional student. He did not graduate with honors. Some in his classes don’t recall him raising his hand all that often.
“Don was a bright guy, but I’d say a disinterested student,” said Calomaris, who now works as a restaurateur, business consultant, and professor. “What he was really interested in was how to make deals, and leverage financing. He was always looking for the quick deal, the fast kill. He looked with disdain at the grunt work.”
“Tact wasn’t his strong suit then and it isn’t now,” he added. “He was always kind of disdainful of the academic process.
“I could tell half the time he didn’t read the assignment,” he added. “He’d bluff his way through it.”
Trump says he was a good student, but he declined a request to release his transcripts — something that he called on President Obama to do in 2011 — saying he would only release his if Obama does first.
“I’d love to do it, if he does it,” Trump said. “I never understood why he didn’t do it. I actually offered him $5 million to do it, if you remember . . . He still didn’t do it.”
Trump was named entrepreneur of the year by Wharton in 1984, he was on the school’s oversight board in 1987, and his photo used to hang on a Hall of Fame wall honoring highly successful alumni (it was stolen in 1991, according to the school newspaper, and a spokesman for the school said he is not aware of any current Hall of Fame).
But there is no physical reminder on campus of Trump’s presence there, in part because he has not donated enough.
“I may at some point. I have great feeling for the school,” Trump said. “It’s something I could conceivably do. I’ve donated, but nothing very substantial.”
On graduation day, Trump and his Wharton classmates were seated near the front of the auditorium. The commencement address was given by William S. Paley, a Wharton alum who was a pioneer at CBS in a medium that Trump would later master: television.
Trump, dressed in a black gown and yellow sash, paused with his father outside a granite building for a photo. Fred Trump is beaming, and his son would soon begin working with his father, building his own real estate empire.
Trump would attempt to become, as he said when he first arrived on campus, the next Bill Zeckendorf, a legendary Manhattan developer known for flamboyance.
“The weather was beautiful, my parents were there, and it was a nice day,” Donald Trump remembers. “You graduate from a great school. I did well. That was the beginning right? The real beginning was that day. It was terrific.”