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Small Town Boy in the Big City

Tracy Elliott

By Paul M. Barrett

Most Saturday mornings in Bremen, Ind., the regulars gather at Zentz's Barber Shop on Plymouth St. to talk politics. "There's a lot of pretty important decisions that are made in the barber shop," says proprietor John Zentz, chairman of Marshall County's Republican Party. The decisions aren't always earth-shaking, but we get some things done without making a fuss. "Barbering ($4 a cut) doesn't interfere. "Oh, my customers are extremely tolerant," Zentz explains. "I just keep on working and I guess they trust me."

Time-honored traditions, personal intimacy, barber shop strategy sessions these are the pride of Bremen, a community of 3500 surrounded by farms and light industrial plants. Small Town U.S.A. says Gregory Mishler, who runs a funeral home and represents the district in the state assembly. "You have the sense that people know each other well here that they speak of you like you're a member of the family."

Of all the blond, healthy looking sons of Bremen you might bump into on Plymouth St. Tracy Elliott has got to be one of the most remarkable: an influential campaign manager in Zentz's organization by age 18, a former student leader and track star at Bremen High and the school's first graduate to attend Harvard Four years in Cambridge have not diminished Elliott's interest in Indiana politics nor improved his opinion of "limousine liberals" and "intellectual me tooism" But he admits to changing. He no longer calls himself conservative" and expresses sincere interest in some of the "big campus causes" he once dismissed "In my family it was always something of a joke that I would come out East and become a flaming liberal," he says, smiling. "It hasn't quite been that."

At a university populated by more than its share of over achievers and self promoters. Elliott has chosen to keep Bremen as his point of reference. He is exceptional in having proudly remained what many undergraduates disdain as "typical," or worse, "middle American." While his classmates fretted over professional school applications. Elliott quietly engineered legislative campaigns back home and penned a fiery political column that ran in the weekly Bremen Enquirer. Along the way, he set aside plans for law school to explore a new interest in American educational philosophy. He will begin teaching this fall at a small private school 40 miles from Bremen.

The "adventure in the big city," as Elliott puts it, has ended happily enough but not without a dark chapter. On top of Harvard's standard academic and social pressure, the visitor from the Midwest had to struggle with a mysterious illness that caused debilitating headaches and depression junior and senior years. His ultimately successful battle against the ailment, and in particular his self-diagnosis, only confirm the power of Bremen-style tenacity: "You just figure that there's got to be some way to beat that problem."

***

Elliott fell in love with politics along with the rest of his town when popular local physician Otis "Doc" Bowen ran for governor in 1972. Bowen swept into office with the Nixon landslide that year, and sixth grader Elliott was captivated by the furor: "The whole community was just thrust into a political frenzy for months. It was exceedingly exciting, not just politically, but in a very personal way... We attended umpteen political rallies and speeches, with the TV cameras and lights and everything... Somewhere in the campaign, I became involved in the whole process, became an avid Republican, an avid Nixon supporter, an avid Bowen supporter. There wasn't much else to be in Bremen."

The youngster began tagging along at any GOP functions he could get into. In 1976, he supervised the township youth campaign for a U.S. Congressional candidate. Elliott's man lost but took Bremen by a wider margin than he received in his home township. "The first big break," the senior recalls with mock seriousness.

Politics seemed to come naturally from the start. "He understood how to evaluate people, how to get them to work, even as a very young man," says Zentz. Elliott, modest about his achievements but joyful in their retelling, credits his "many teachers," including his father. Duwaine, a successful businessman and former town board president.

After becoming the youngest delegate ever to attend an Indiana state Republican convention, the junior Elliott left for Harvard. But he brought his work with him.

"I just try to stay in touch with people, that's all," he explains, Says Zentz: "I'd hate to pay his college phone bill." Elliott directed the rookie state assembly campaign of Bremenite Greg Mishler the summer after freshman year and continued to manage the operation from Cambridge through the fall Long-distance leadership never posed a major problem for the precocious strategist: "Everyone knew just what they had to do every day until the polls closed because I had mapped it all out beforehand--advertising, canvassing, appearances, the works."

Mishler, a relative unknown running against a popular Democrat, mounted an impressive campaign. "I went home that last weekend to push it all through," says Elliott, pausing dramatically "And we got beat."

Despite the loss, Mishler was impressed by Elliott's abilities and rehired the Ivy Leaguer for another try in 1982. "We figured we had in this time," explains Elliott. "The Legislature was just totally controlled by the Republicans and carved out a new district for Greg in '82, which also happened to carve out his opponent." He adds matter-of-factly: "It's not gerrymandering; it's called redistricting."

Elliott emphasized the need for "clear image-projection rather than excessive detail" in the campaign that summer, particularly in a newspaper advertising offensive he terms "pretty successful by most estimates." Once again, he had to direct the final stages of his operation from Cambridge, but "things moved smoothly and fell into place--we won." Says State Rep. Mishler: "We all knew what we had to do, including me... Only someone of Tracy's caliber could have pulled this thing off."

The fervor of battle first drew Elliott into politics; his unusual skills as field commander kept him there. But he also quickly developed heartfelt, hard-Right principles to go with his organizing talents. "I was a Republican who would have abandoned the Republican ship if the principles were no longer conservative enough," he says. "I proudly associated myself with the New Right... God, country, and the flag and a very limited role for government in all levels of society, a predilection for business, commerce or economic activity."

In a floridly written political column entitled "Verities and Balderdash," he exhorted The Bremen Enquirer's readers to choose right over wrong, and, for that matter, Right over Left. Of Ronald Reagan, Elliott wrote in Spring 1981: "The President is a prophet of renewal in a nation that is losing its self-confidence...He is a prayerful man, and I think that he realizes that, while it's important, our renewal as a nation does not depend upon the state of our economy or the size of our purses, but instead it depends upon our inner selves, and upon our inner sense of purpose as a nation."

He repeatedly aimed his rhetorical artillery at the Bremen teachers' union, accusing some instructors of selfishness and educational subversion. While an already tense confrontation over school policy heated up, the paper's editorship passed from a Republican to a Democrat, who happened to have two relatives in the teachers' union. Small town politics set in. One week a disclaimer began appearing over Elliott's byline: "The opinions expressed in this column are not those of the editor." Gradually, the space allotted for "Verities and Balderdash" shrank, until finally, the editor cut it to 10 column inches. "That same week there was a 25-inch article on how to choose a toothbrush," he recalls, shaking his head in amusement. "I decided, 'Okay, fine, forget it," and he quit journalism.

Politics at Harvard had never been as rewarding as in Bremen, despite the brief appearance of a vocal conservative undergraduate faction in the 1981-82 school year. Elliott led the Reagan primary effort on campus early in 1980 but relinquished control by the fall because of commitments at home and "a sense of futility about the whole thing here. "He recalls a freshman year conversation with a friend, which shifted from religion to politics: "She turned to me with an intense gaze and said, 'How can you morally justify being a Republican?' I just had no idea how to respond, so I just laughed. Can you imagine that?"

He joined the undergraduate Republican Club but left after encountering what he calls "some unbelievably crooked politics for a silly little campus organization." Equally unattractive to Elliott was the small circle which produced the now apparently defunct Salient, a right-wing periodical. "I had a sense of approval that there was some discussion going on, some of it intelligent, says Elliott. "But...they wanted to be snide and defensive and 'intellectual.' "He didn't sign on. "I guess I enjoy politics much more when you feel you're having some sort of impact--not on world events but on whether the streets will be paved or whether the town will preserve its parks or put in parking lots."

***

Elliott has maintained a small circle of close friends here, and they have joked since freshman year about the entrenched conservative attitudes he arrived with. "He was the first person I'd met who I disagreed with on everything," says Kathy Wohl. "Oh, yes," laughs her roommate Lisa Mensah. "I think Tracy was as shocked by us as we were by him sometimes. "They exchanged teasing gifts over the years, Elliott sending Wohl a red, white and blue license plate declaring, "God, Guns and Guts Made America/Let's Keep All Three." The two women, meanwhile, still laugh over his admission that, as a pre-Watergate tyke, he hung a framed picture of Richard Nixon on his bedroom wall.

That Elliott would come to defend his world view against Harvard liberals still seems like something of a fluke. He applied to only one other school--tiny Hillsdale College in northeast Indiana, an institution popular in conservative circles for its free market philosophy and refusal to accept federal financial support. But Harvard Basketball Coach Frank McLaughlin happens to be a long-time family friend and convinced the dubious Bremenite to submit an application here. "I knew nothing about Harvard except that it was THE great school," says Elliott, who at a stocky 5ft. 10-in. showed no promise as a basketball player.

The "shot in the dark" hit its mark, and Elliott trekked east, "convinced I would get all C's, if not all D's, and that there would be a good chance that I would fail out altogether." He quickly overcame his fears with a plain old all-American effort: "I studied my rear end off." He amassed mammoth outlines of lectures and readings, particularly in American history, which became a new obsession. "I loved it once I got used to it. It was just exceedingly exciting. I ended up doing quite well for a guy from Bremen, Ind."

Elliott drew from his academic work not just a sense of accomplishment or a fancy resume credit, but a new means of understanding himself and his most closely held beliefs. To his surprise, he discovered fewer real political divisions in American history than he had assumed existed. His interpretations rely heavily on theories first popularized in the mid-1950s by Louis Hartz and other members of the so-called "consensus school" of American history: "I really think political philosophy went out with Jackson, or sometime in that era. When industrialism imposed upon us a new set of ground rules, no longer could we talk about truly laissez-faire economics versus whether we were going to build canals." He adds, "There aren't any 'conservatives,' and there aren't any 'liberals' in the traditional sense in this country."

At the same time, Elliott was listening carefully to campus debate and engaging friends like Wohl and Mensah in marathon dining hall symposia on contemporary events. What I saw was a very deep and honest, not Chie, belief that there is deep injustice in the world and a great need for social change on many levels, that government has a necessary role to play, he says. "My previous assumptions did not admit that need." His sympathies still lie with Reagan rather than Tip O'Neill, with individualism rather than collectivism. "On most issues that are raised by undergraduate political leaders. I have remained skeptical," he says "But on some, such as divestiture. I have begun to realize that there is a real moral question involved that I think is perfectly legitimate for people to get up in arms about."

The stereotype of small town reactionary fanaticism is often as much of a myth as that of the Red Menace on the Charles, insists Elliott. He points out that his family, for example, as well as other members of the Anabaptist Protestant sect to which they belong, have always stressed cooperation and generosity in race relations. "In some ways I also came here a lot less exist than many people," he adds, explaining that in Bremen, women such as his own mother work full-time "out of necessity, and there's no great cause attached to it." In general he lauds the instinct to "take care of problems back home, rather than looking for handouts." His albatross upon arrival here, he says, was not overt intolerance, but "ignorance, just lack of learning...I hadn't recognized the extent of certain problems."

That conclusion has helped push Elliott toward teaching and away from law school. "Behind the closed door of the classroom, a great teacher can make up for a lot of ignorance." His columns on Bremen's teacher's union, as well as his love for American history, and a desire to accomplish something concrete for his community--"they all just finally fused together, and I realized what I wanted to do, what seemed right despite other options." His mother, he expects, will continue to wonder why he didn't choose a more lucrative profession. "And I guess I can see that, sure. I would have laughed at you if you had told me freshman year that I would go back and be a school teacher."

***

Sadly, Elliott points out, any account of his Harvard career must include his battle over the last two years with an illness that caused severe headaches, and later, depression. A series of doctors have failed to identify the ailment, but they eventually traced it to chemical fumes he was exposed to during a summer factory job he held after sophomore year. The chronic pain never subsided until this spring, despite various treatments, and pushed Elliott into a state of clinical depression. "The pain was bad," he recalls without visible emotion, "but your mental state gets so dark that everything that had looked good is gray, and everything that had been bad is pure black."

It's hard to believe that this gregarious, cheerful young man spent days on end lying in the dark, hoping for sleep "because that was the one way to escape the pain and depression." He never ceased his long-distance political work or bailed out of classes altogether. But the costs cannot be recovered--the long periods of isolation, the decision to drop plans for a senior honors thesis. "It was going to be on Jacksonian era conceptions of the American Revolution....It was something that would have been the great challenge. It became impossible." He also lost an opportunity to travel to Germany after graduation on a Rotary Club fellowship because of doubts about his health.

Only when Elliott himself suggested the combination of chemical and psychological reactions this year was progress made toward relieving his condition. "I read just about every book on pain and psychology and medicine I could get my hands on...until in this one I found that answer, what the [author] called 'biopsychogenic pain.' I diagnosed myself, and I think correctly."

Today, he says, "the dark cloud has lifted. I've regained a good perspective on the fact that I enjoyed being here.... There will be pain for a long time. It takes a while to work itself out of your body, but I'm on my way." He doesn't mourn what has been lost: "The fellowship, for instance, would have been exciting, but the job I have now probably wouldn't have been there next year. I'm content with how things turned out."

What's on his mind now, is getting back home, "seeing folks and catching up, like I usually do." He expects to drop in on John Zentz's Barber Shop the first chance he gets--"talk politics with John and the old fellas there on Saturday. John'll be clipping away and talking like he always does."

Is it possible to fit back into Bremen life as a Harvard Man? Only to an extent, says Elliott. "It's very easy to go back and be the same old person. The challenges that have made me different don't exist out there....But they'll all see those changes eventually, and they won't be alarmed."

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