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Democratic Convention Puts Mrs. Clinton’s Hometown in Spotlight

August 20, 1996

PARK RIDGE, Ill. (AP) _ For the hometown of one of the world’s best-known women, it seemed like a simple idea: Commemorate her roots with a portrait hung in some public place.

But the woman is Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Park Ridge is a Republican stronghold where fewer than one in four voters helped put her husband in the White House in 1992.

When it came to a portrait of Bill Clinton’s wife, folks couldn’t agree on where to hang it _ or even how to hang it. ``Would you do it with pomp and circumstance, or just put it up and see what happens?″ Mayor Ron Wietecha wondered aloud.

So the portrait remains nothing more than a nice idea, and an example of the curious mixture of civic pride and partisan distaste with which Mrs. Clinton is regarded here.

``No one knows quite whether to love her or leave her,″ says Wietecha, himself a Republican.

With the Democratic National Convention opening a few miles away in Chicago next week, curiosity seekers and journalists are descending on the Midwestern suburb for a glimpse of the neighborhood where young Hillary once played.

Much remains the same as in 1965, when the future first lady graduated from Maine Township High School East. The school is still there, as is the two-story Georgian home she shared from age 4 with parents Hugh and Dorothy Rodham and two younger brothers. It sits on the corner of Wisner and Elm streets in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of neatly manicured, tree-shaded lawns.

The current owner, Helen Velasquez, is renovating the three-bedroom house, and has a framed picture of the house as it appeared when the Rodhams lived there. (Hillary’s girlhood bedroom was decorated with a colorful wall mural of sugarplum fairies.)

Still, there are plenty of Republicans in Park Ridge whose take on Mrs. Clinton is something other than a charming stroll down memory lane.

``I think Hillary has departed completely from her roots,″ said former state Rep. Penny Pullen, a conservative Republican and classmate of Mrs. Clinton in the days before Hillary went from Goldwater Republican to Democrat. ``I think she forgot a lot of the values and common sense that she was exposed to growing up in Park Ridge.″

Others simply remember her as a friend. Take high school beau Ernest Ricketts, now a 49-year-old restaurateur living in suburban Oak Brook. He has known Mrs. Clinton since the fourth grade, when the two walked to school together and discussed everything from the Mickey Mouse Club to politics.

Young Hillary Rodham was ``dynamite″ in those days with her long blonde hair and headband, says Ricketts. He remembers accompanying her to a ninth-grade girls’ choice dance _ with her dad in the driver’s seat.

On Saturdays, they and other youngsters went downtown to the Pickwick Theater, an art deco building with an ornate black-and-white marquee where 55 cents would buy a ticket, popcorn and soda.

At First Methodist Church on Touhy Avenue, Ricketts and young Hillary had the same youth minister, Don Jones, whom some credit with helping to form the future Mrs. Clinton’s social conscience. Jones, now a professor at Drew University in New Jersey, still corresponds with Mrs. Clinton.

``I did teach the students about the history of the Methodist Church ... but at the same time a strong sense of social responsibility,″ Jones says.

As a ninth-grader in Room 338 at Maine East, Hillary Rodham sat in the fifth row. History teacher Paul Carlson recalls a bright, bespectacled, vivacious teen-ager who turned in a 75-page term paper, wore her Girl Scout uniform to school and eagerly joined in class discussions.

``She always knew what the affairs of the day were,″ he said. ``Her parents sat with her and her brothers at dinner, and they talked politics.″ Her father was a Republican; her mother, a Democrat, Carlson recalled.

Carlson still corresponds with Mrs. Clinton, sometimes offering unsolicited advice. She’s written him 10 letters since January. To this day, he says, it would take a lot to shake his faith in her honesty.

``Even though I’m a Buckley conservative, Hillary is good for the country,″ Carlson says, ``because she makes the country think.″

Wietecha expects Mrs. Clinton will accept his invitation to visit Park Ridge during the convention.

``We’d certainly like to celebrate her success on the steps of City Hall with some kind of tribute,″ the mayor says. ``I think most people in our town ... recognize that she is a success and carries many of the values that she acquired here in our community.″

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