Magistrate Sidney Barthwell Jr. knew both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney long before they became household names.
Barthwell was the only African American in the class of 1965 with Romney at Cranbrook School for Boys in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. From 1987 to 1990, he attended law school at Harvard University where he met Obama.
Nestled on 315 acres in suburban Detroit and designed by Finnish architect Gottlieb Eliel Saarinen in 1927, the “drop-dead gorgeous” Cranbrook academy is considered the Exeter and Andover of the Midwest, Barthwell says. It’s also known from a freestyle battle in the movie “8 Mile.” Eminen’s character Rabbit attacks the street cred of rap rival Papa Doc, portrayed by Anthony Mackie, derisively outing him as a wannabe gangster of privilege from Cranbrook.
At 12, Barthwell experienced “culture shock,” going from his Boston-Edison neighborhood where African Americans of all backgrounds lived, to boarding school at Cranbook with the richest of the rich.
Barthwell grew up comfortably, but he wasn’t Romney rich. His father, who died at age 99 in 2005, was part of the Great Migration. In 1922, he headed north from Cordele, Ga., to Detroit where he amassed a dozen pharmacies — the largest black-owned chain the country — and would treat his son’s friends to banana splits made with Barthwell’s Ice Cream. Cranbrook was his idea. The decision wasn’t negotiable.
The elder Barthwell was friendly with the elder Romney. Both self-made men worked on landmark civil rights provisions as delegates to Michigan’s Constitutional Convention in 1961. Before his death in 1995, George Romney had turned around American Motors, led Michigan as a three-term governor, served in President Richard Nixon’s cabinet and ran for president.
“Whenever he came to the school,” Barthwell said, “he always went out of his way to say hello and ask about my father.” Barthwell respected the governor, who was also his commencement speaker. “Governor Romney was a civil rights activist, even though he was a Republican. Back in those days, they had an animal known as a moderate Republican. That animal no longer exists.”
Mitt Romney, Barthwell recalled, “was a very ordinary, very average type of student. He was not an athlete. He wasn’t one of the top students. He wasn’t a class leader.”
“He wasn’t the guy that you would think would be president or running for president,” Barthwell added, “but you have to keep in mind his pedigree. He came from privilege.” Romney wasn’t merely born with a silver spoon, he said, but with “a big titanium spoon.”
Barthwell also remembers Romney as a “practical joker” and heard tales of him pretending to be a cop and pulling over friends on a double date. Falling for the ruse, the girls were mortified when he pulled out empty liquor bottles that had been planted in the trunk.
Other Cranbrook alumni described a hair-cutting attack on a boy in his dormitory “with bleached-blond hair that draped over one eye,” according to an article by Jason Horowitz on May 10, in The Washington Post. The boy, John Lauber, was “perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality,” Horowitz wrote. Classmates also said Romney giggled after guiding a blind teacher into a door and uttered “Atta girl!” when a “closeted gay” student would speak in class.
Barthwell doesn’t remember these incidents and said he didn’t think Romney should be judged for pranks he might have pulled a half-century ago. “It is not an accurate representation of who he is now,” he said. “He’s matured tremendously.”
During his second year at Harvard, Barthwell met 27-year-old Barack Obama. “Everyone there was extremely talented; they were just very impressive,” Barthwell said. “Even amidst all of these smart people, there were those who stood out as being the smartest of the smart and stars among stars. Barack was one of those people.”
“Barack was a very nice man; very, very friendly to everybody,” Barthwell said. “We got a chance to know each other really well.” Both men were members of the Black Law Students Association and editors at the Harvard Law Review. In the spring of 1990, Obama became for the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, selected on the basis of grades, scores and the votes of editors.
Outside law school, Obama and Barthwell would talk trash about basketball although they never got around to challenging each other on the court. “He had some personality about him,” Barthwell says.
During their Harvard days, Barthwell never envisioned Obama as president because of the times. “Realistically, I wasn’t thinking that any black man or any woman would be president in my lifetime,”
“The stars aligned for Barack,” Barthwell said. “When opportunity knocks, you have to be ready to walk through the door and he was.”
One thing that he admires about Obama is that he’s “very capable” and that he wasn’t just trying to promote his own career, whether it was as a community organizer, senator or even president.
“I think he’s done a lot of significant things that are under the radar through executive orders,” he said, and despite opposition in Congress. “In spite of all that, Barack saved the country from depression.”
“In Michigan, the impact has been phenomenal,” Barthwell said. “All three automobile companies are making record profits. They’re all doing very well. They’re hiring. Their factories are working all three shifts. Things haven’t been this good in Michigan in a long time.” Despite Detroit’s lingering woes, the Motor City is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, said Barthwell, who is featured in “Untold Glory: African Americans in Pursuit of Freedom, Opportunity and Achievement” by Alan Govenar (Broadway, 2007). Last year, the marathoner self-published a semi-biographical book titled “The Runner: Traversing the Road of Life.”
So, who would make the better president? Romney or Obama?
Barthwell’s judicial position prevents him from saying. And it’s unclear whether he would if he could.