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Wellesley was a ‘touchstone’ for Hillary Clinton

Democrat’s alma mater is a source of rejuvenation — along with volunteers, donors

Hillary Clinton, who graduated from Wellesley College in 1969, has long nurtured her ties with the school.
Hillary Clinton, who graduated from Wellesley College in 1969, has long nurtured her ties with the school.(Globe File Photo (left); Brennan Linsley/AP)

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Hillary Clinton was pressed for time, and needed to quickly leave the stage here for a high-dollar fund-raiser in Washington.

But Clinton made one more stop before heading to the airport: She had to meet the Wellesley students.

She expected a small group. Instead, 45 grinning students with “Hillary” signs lined up to greet the school’s most famous alum.

“I thought she might cry,” recalled Ahilya Chawla, a Wellesley College senior who cofounded a group of students supporting Clinton on campus. “But she’s Hillary; she doesn’t cry.”

It’s one of many examples of Clinton’s enduring ties to her college, more than four decades after she graduated in 1969. The all-women’s college where she tasted her first national successes serves as a source of campaign and financial help, and as a well of moral support, as she tries for the second time to make history by becoming the first woman to be elected president of the United States.

Like many others, Clinton, now 68, has fond and lasting memories of her college days, but she also has taken care to nurture her ties to it even as her career has grown. The Chicago native became first lady of Arkansas, first lady of the United States, US senator from New York, and secretary of state, and years later Wellesley has served as a hometown of sorts.

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“Sometimes at the end of a long day, you shut your eyes and places come up unbidden,” Clinton said in a telephone interview with the Globe. She ticked off her Wellesley dorm, the lakeside view from her room, and sitting by the lake as images that, she said, provide “rejuvenation just to even think about.”

“Wellesley remains a touchstone,” she added. “I see myself in years to come making time to go be a guest lecturer or spend other occasions there. I always think about it.”

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At the same time, the practical needs of a campaign are also served by her Wellesley network.

Twenty percent of the members of Wellesley’s board of trustees have written checks to Clinton’s campaign, according to a Globe review of campaign finance data. That includes Laura Gates — the chairwoman of Wellesley’s board of trustees — who raised at least $97,000 for Clinton’s campaign at a party for her earlier this month in Charleston, S.C. (The college, a nonprofit, is barred from taking any official position on Clinton’s candidacy.)

Clinton by no means has the support of the entire Wellesley universe. Last month, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, her strongest rival for the Democratic nomination, posed for a photo with more than a dozen Wellesley students.

But for Clinton, the relationship with the college spans nearly every chapter of her life.

Back in the late 1960’s as students, Eleanor Acheson and Clinton — then Hillary Rodham — were part of a group who pushed the Wellesley administration to create a slot for a student to address the graduating class when they were seniors at the college.

They met with the college president and wrote letters to the college trustees and a parents’ committee, exerting the kind of behind-the-scenes pressure that Clinton later became known for as first lady and in the Senate and State Department.

“We weren’t carrying signs out parading past Founders,” Acheson said, a reference to the Gothic hall in the middle of campus. “We thought through how to do this — and a way to get to the right result.”

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Hillary Rodham was the speaker — and made national headlines for her address.

Among the many alumnae who are supporting her campaign is Madeleine Albright, another former secretary of state.
Among the many alumnae who are supporting her campaign is Madeleine Albright, another former secretary of state.(Stephan Savoia/Associated Press)

The connection to the college continued to be a priority for Clinton as her power grew and her profile rose. “It is just an essential part of my own life experience and journey,” Clinton said.

Perhaps the best example of her sheer enthusiasm for the college came in January 1993, when the Wellesley Club of Washington hosted a preinauguration party for the soon-to-be first lady at the Mayflower Hotel.

Clinton was running late, and her motorcade became snarled in traffic.

“I just said, ‘We’ve got to get out. We’ve got to walk. I’ve got to make it,’ ” Clinton recalled in the interview. “It was a funny experience. Here we are getting ready to have my husband sworn in as president and I’m literally hopping out of a car running to get to my Wellesley event.”

Alums were delighted when she joined in singing a Wellesley version of “America the Beautiful” including the slightly modified line “and crown thy good with SISTERhood.”

Later, Clinton invited her entire Wellesley class of 1969 to the White House twice. She served on the board of trustees, and she frequently returns to the campus for reunions.

Supporters from the college stuck with Clinton when she failed to capture the Democratic nomination for president in 2008.

Susan Esserman, a Wellesley alum and partner at a Washington law firm, recalled visiting Clinton in her Senate office after she had lost to present a gift: A bound book of letters and photographs from Wellesley alums who had worked on the campaign.

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“They were like love notes,” Esserman recalled.

And when the class gathered for the 40th reunion in June 2009, a number of Wellesley graduates who had worked on Clinton’s campaign met at the campus student center. They were delighted when Clinton showed up unexpectedly.

Clinton said it was “bittersweet” to see so many Wellesley supporters, because, in the end, she had fallen short.

But for those who attended “it was an unforgettable session,” Esserman said. “You could just see the incredible intensity of feeling, the respect and affection that everybody had for her.”

Now, eight years later, that same well of emotion is propelling Wellesley graduates to work for her again. Esserman said that more than 1,000 graduates spanning decades of classes have signed up for a Wellesley Women for Hillary network that will coordinate volunteering and fund-raising.

Madeleine Albright — the first female secretary of state — is stumping for her in early states.

“What we have to do is help each other and get more women in the room,” Albright said recently to a women’s club in Concord, N.H. “The bottom line is Madeleine needs a Mary in the room, or somebody that will also be supportive.”

In an interview later, Albright said she and Clinton frequently bond over their shared experiences at Wellesley even though they graduated 10 years apart. “We kid a lot about how two-thirds of the women secretary of states came from Wellesley,” she said. (The third, Condoleezza Rice, earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Denver.)

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Wellesley even occasionally helps Clinton find common ground with some voters, a part of retail politicking that’s not always her strength. At one campaign stop in Berlin, N.H., she exclaimed “Seven sister” to a woman who told her that she’d attended Smith College, another all-woman’s that’s a friendly Wellesley rival. She vowed to vote for Clinton anyway.

Hours later, when picking up soup and a sandwich at a Littleton, N.H., diner, she mentioned Wellesley when she bonded with a group of women who had known each other since high school.

“Lets do a picture. Girlfriends together — who has a phone?” Clinton said.

At times, the institution seems to be providing Clinton with the moral boost. That was clear in Manchester on a glorious mid-September day when she quickly spoke to the 45 Wellesley students.

At the time, her campaign was dogged by questions about her private e-mail server and sagging poll numbers, and Vice President Joe Biden appeared poised to enter the race.

Seeing 45 students screaming “Wellesley” caused Clinton to smile broadly — and almost dance and drink in their enthusiasm. She pointed to herself and said: “You guys are really a sight for sore eyes.”

She recalled traveling up to New Hampshire to volunteer for Senator Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential bid.

“I loved doing it,” Clinton said to the students. “I skipped a few classes — but not many.”

She urged them to keep volunteering. “It would mean the world to me to have this strong base of Wellesley women here in New Hampshire.”


Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com . Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.