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High School Heroes

by William McGaughey, Jr.


I was a top student in grade school, middle school, and, to some extent, high school. My personal ideals were formed around that type of identity.

When I was a senior in high school, I learned of students in the same prep school, Cranbrook, who had gone on to glory and fame. The Cranbrook class of 1956 - two years before me - had a student named Michael (“Mike”) Freeman, who graduated at the top of his class with a grade point average of 97.95%.

Freeman won first place in eight out of twelve writing awards in a contest sponsored by the Detroit News. More impressive still, he placed first in the national SAT tests. I remember talking in a boastful way at a New Year’s Day party with my father’s boss, George Romney, about Freeman’s impressive record, not knowing, of course, that Romney would later be elected Governor of Michigan and his son, Mitt, would be the Republican nominee for President in 2012.

What happened to Mike Freeman? I met him once at the wedding of his classmate, Bob Pearson, in Providence, Rhode Island, in the summer of 1961. Freeman was talking about constellations of stars. At a Cranbrook class reunion, I later talked with a relative of Freeman, who said he had played an important role in the development of artificial intelligence. That made sense to me. Freeman was destined to go on to great achievements. However, I have not heard much since then about Mike Freeman’s career. I have the impression he might have died.

There was also a graduate of Cranbrook School in the class of 1955 who compiled an impressive record. He was Pete Dawkins: captain cadet at West Point, academically high in his class, captain of Army’s football team, and a Heisman trophy winner. He was later a Rhodes scholar. Life magazine had a feature article about Dawkins in the early stages of the Vietnam war. He was the “fair-haired boy” of the entire country after Army’s football success.

Dawkins had a moderately successful career. In the U.S. Army, he was eventually promoted to brigadier general. He ran for U.S. Senate in 1988, losing to Frank Lautenberg. Then Dawkins took top positions with Wall Street firms. He is presently a senior partner at Flintlock Capital Asset Management.

There was a Cranbrook graduate in an earlier class, 1948, who has become a household name. He was Daniel Elsberg, who released the Pentagon papers to the New York Times. President Nixon’s henchmen sent people to burglarize the files of Elsberg’s psychiatrist. I do not know if he was a top student at Cranbrook, though he was obviously intelligent and well educated. Fate would have it that Elsberg would gain fame as a whistleblower.

Myself, I graduated from Cranbrook school in 1958 second in my class and was admitted to Yale. I dropped out of Yale in the middle of my junior year, lived in West Germany for 15 months, returned to Yale and graduated in 1964. Then I dropped out of an MBA program and went to work immediately as an accountant in Minnesota. My accounting career was mediocre.

I really wanted to be a philosopher. I think I have succeeded moderately well in that line of work. However, I am not an academic and there is not much interest in creative works of philosophy any more. I have also developed an interest in history and published books in that field as well. None of my books has been a commercial success.

Now 74 years of age, I own a small apartment building and other rental properties. I have no children of my own. My net worth may be around $300,000, mostly from inherited property. I live in a poor neighborhood of Minneapolis but am planning to move to Pennsylvania. I have been married and divorced three times. I will be remarrying my second wife next week.

Two of my Cranbrook classmates later became commercially successful authors. Tom McGuane is a Hemingway-like writer who has lived in Montana and Key West, Florida, engaged in sporting activities. Edmund White is a well-known gay author who has taught at universities. Both McGuane and White took the Special English class with Carl Wonnberger at Cranbrook, as did I. In fact, one of White’s best-known books, A Boy’s Own Story, is a fictionalized account of his years as a Cranbrook student.

The point of this is to suggest that a young man or woman should not set his or her sights too firmly on the much-heralded path to success that runs from high school to college and then to a career. Freeman and I may have been successful high school students from the standpoint of grade-point average - he more than I - but our careers have been less than stellar. (Again, I do not know what Freeman did later in life so it may be unwise to jump to conclusions.) Dawkins also was a high-school and college hero whose career trajectory did not live up to its earlier promise. On the other hand, Thomas McGuane and Edmund White, with less impressive academic records, have done quite well for persons who wanted to make writing novels a career.

I do not want to be too hard on myself for having bitten the sometimes bitter worm of academic glory. I was young and did not know any better. I later dropped out of the academic and career rat race when it would have been smart to continue. But I have no regrets. Successful or not, my life experiences have been largely self-chosen and I have persevered.


P.S. Regarding Mike Freeman, I received an email from his classmate with the following information: "Michael graduated summa cum laude from Harvard. No surprise.  He eventually moved to Phoenixville PA and worked for a company which was involved in SDI  and AI. He reported this in a college alumni annual.  For his birthday Dec 5, 1985 after a stopover in Indianapolis to give a talk, he had gone home to be with his father.  His mother had died the year before. At home he came downstairs on the morning of his birthday and suddenly fell dead.  Michael had married and had two children of high school age at the time. The FBI investigated though I have no information on any findings.

Of note, Michael’s father was George Romney’s doctor (or one of them); George lived in the same Detroit neighborhood of Palmer Woods back in the day and he gave the ’56 Cranbrook Commencement address."

P.P.S. Mike Freeman was an academic superstar who impressed me greatly. I remember once talking with my father’s boss, George Romney, at a New Years Day party in which I expressed admiration for Freeman. Unknown to either of us at the time, George Romney’s son, Mitt, would later be elected Governor of Massachusetts and, in 2012, become the Republican presidential nominee.


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