When Christie was president - of his high school class

Posted: October 28, 2013

When the owner of the local diner kicked out his friends for not ordering food, he organized a boycott of the diner. When his baseball team's season ended in a loss, he wrote a letter to the local paper to publicly thank his coaches.

And after a group of high school seniors painted their graduation year on the school roof, he promised the principal that it wouldn't happen again. Then he led the mission back up on the roof the following weekend to repaint "80."

Chris Christie, Livingston High School Class of 1980, was popular and a pretty good varsity catcher. He called a smart game and had some pop in his bat, even if he was a little slow on the base paths.

But most of all, with his natural charm, leadership skills, and political aspirations from a young age, the teenage Christie is remembered by his former teammates and classmates as being, well, presidential.

With polls indicating the Republican governor is poised to beat Democrat Barbara Buono in next week's gubernatorial election, a look at his formative years through the eyes of those who knew him then reveals that his ascent to the New Jersey Statehouse was not a surprise - and an eventual pursuit of the White House wouldn't be either.

Class president for all three years of high school, Christie chose this as his yearbook quote: "Great Hopes makes Great Men." Underneath, he made an inside joke: "painting the roof, twice."

"I guess the statute of limitations has run out on that," joked old friend Rick Sules, an attorney.

It was a tradition for Livingston High seniors to paint the side of the school roof. So Christie's father bought the paint, and up went Christie and his buddies, painting "80."

But the new school principal didn't like the tradition. He had the "80" painted over, and called Christie into his office. "I would hope you would provide the leadership necessary to let your classmates know that this is not acceptable," he told Christie.

"I said, 'Sure,' " Christie remembered in an interview Friday. "Then I went to my friends and said: 'We gotta paint it this weekend.' "

And so they did.

It wasn't all teenage antics for young Christie; there was also romance. In his yearbook, Christie wrote: To Melina. you've taken my life into your heart. Our special love will live in my heart forever.

Well, not exactly forever. Christie met future New Jersey first lady Mary Pat Foster soon thereafter at the University of Delaware. But Melina Maritato, now a veterinarian who was somewhat surprised it took this long for a reporter to track her down, had only nice things to say about the boy she dated until senior year.

They hung at each other's houses - their mothers acted as chauffeurs - and sometimes he sent flowers with a card.

"He was a romantic, but we were also good buddies," Maritato said. "We were very comfortable around one another - he's an easy guy to be comfortable with."

They broke up senior year, and saw each other at the prom with other dates. "It was awkward," Christie acknowledged.

Few other things seemed awkward for Christie; he was known for an ability to talk to both kids and adults.

Christie's office referred The Inquirer to some friends; others were contacted independently. None remembered Christie talking politics in detail, or espousing the conservative views he has today, although he has said he was first inspired by former Republican Gov. Tom Kean, for whom he volunteered.

Harlan Coben, a best-selling novelist, now talks politics with Christie. But at age 10 he was just recovering from rheumatic fever and starting the Little League season late. "I was obviously a little nervous," Coben said.

So Christie walked over to introduce himself: "Harlan Coben, how are ya? Nice to have you back."

Coben still marvels at the charm. "If you were to ask who in our class would end up being governor . . . most people would tell you Chris Christie," he said.

Christie, who organized class reunions until he became governor in 2010, attended his 30th reunion that year and stayed in the after-party suite until 2:30 a.m. When the friends get together, they tell old stories - but not much about Christie's accomplishments as class president. Friends remember just two: landing off-campus lunch privileges and moving graduation to the football field.

Sules, who was secretary on the class council, said Christie's passion for government was "in his genes." "There was no doubt that he was going to be the [class] president" every year, he said.

Sules and Christie were selected to go to the Boys State leadership conference, where Christie ran for "governor." Christie lost in the primary, and won a senate seat instead.

It was through baseball, though, that Christie first truly experienced losing.

"A lot of the lessons we learned growing up as kids in Livingston translated into politics - whether it be competition or teamwork, how to succeed, how to fail, adversity, pressure," said Fred Alworth, a longtime teammate.

Christie's Babe Ruth League team of 13-year-olds lost the state championship game - "a heartbreaker," according to the news clipping - despite Christie's last-inning single to spark a rally. He was stranded on base when the game ended.

Foreshadowing his propensity for drawing media attention, Christie then went to the press to thank his coaches by name: "At first, these two names to you are just that, names; but by the end of this letter we hope you will find a special place in your heart for them as we have."

Waxing poetic, he wrote that at practice every night there was "a new play and a new way to try to reach perfection."

In 1978, his team won the state championship in part because he took one for his friends: He was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded, according to the West Essex Tribune, and was named MVP.

On the field, teammates said Christie acted like a coach. He "had that skill of who to pat on the butt, who to kick in the butt, who to leave alone," Alworth said.

Added Bill "Jules" Giuliano: "If I whiffed or something, or had a little bit of a bad day, he would put his arm around me and say, 'Hey, Jules, you'll get 'em next time.' "

Going into his senior year, the Livingston High team looked strong. Then a phenom catcher transferred from private school and Christie was relegated to designated hitter.

"It was one of the first real disappointments in life I had to deal with," Christie said. "But it was a great lesson for me."

Pitcher Scott Parsons said Christie came over to his house, and was "just pouring out his tears, he was just crushed. But to his credit he didn't leave the team."

Christie was elected captain for the team's tournament run, and they became state champs.

Socially, whether to Seaside for a raucous week after graduation or just a Saturday night at the diner, Christie was also the pack's leader. So when the Heritage Diner's owner in Livingston kicked Christie's friends out for not ordering food, the future governor intervened.

"Chris was like, 'Are you kidding me? Ninety percent of us are ordering food!' " Giuliano recalled. Christie organized a boycott, passed out leaflets, and wrote an editorial in a community paper.

Business plummeted as a result, Christie said.

A few weeks later he went in alone and sat at the counter. The owner came over: "Chris, this has to stop." They negotiated an arrangement: The whole group could stay if at least two boys ordered and tipped the waitress.


mkatz@phillynews.com

609-217-8355 @mattkatz00

www.inquirer.com/christiechronicles

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