Congressman Thomas E. Petri ’62 got his first taste of the life of a politician when he was still an undergraduate living in Quincy House.
His senior year, Petri was mistaken for Congressman Frank B. “Brad” Morse, who was scheduled to give a talk at the College.
“Tim came down there, and they thought that he was the Congressman because Congressman Morse hadn’t shown up yet, and he played along with it,” said Bruce K. Chapman ’62, his Quincy House roommate. “Finally the real Congressman came in, and it dawned on the crowd around Tim that he was not the Congressman.”
Petri, now a 17-term congressman for Wisconsin’s 6th district, remains a Wisconsinite at heart. Originally from the small town of Fond du Lac, friends and family say that Petri remains distinctly un-Washingtonian.
“Most people don’t swim around Lake DeNeveu anymore because they are all in their boats,” said his daughter, Alexandra A. Petri ’10, a humor blogger for the Washington Post. “But there’s always this one man swimming in it. That’s my dad.”
“He completely belies the stereotype of people in Congress,” agreed Chapman.
A HARVARD START
Before he even set foot in Harvard Yard, Petri knew he had a burning interest in politics.
“My grandfather always thought that people took the advantageous opportunities that they had in the United States for granted and that you should be as active as you could and take advantage of the opportunities you had,” Petri said.
With a taste for political and leadership organizations, Petri had already participated in Boys State during high school. When he arrived in Massachusetts Hall as a freshman, he joined the campus Republican club and the Student Council. Later, Petri founded the Ripon Society, a Republican political organization for graduate students and young professionals, while serving as a proctor in Thayer Hall.
“He had leadership written all over him from the start,” said Chapman. “He was one of those kids who if you’d gone to high school with him you would have said he’s bound to go into politics someday.”
As a sophomore, Petri joined Quincy House, where he plugged into the politically charged atmosphere.
“One thing that people certainly knew when we were there was that Quincy House was the political house,” Chapman said.
While he concentrated in Government, Petri also had what Chapman called “great economic sense.” From selling milk, sandwiches, cookies, and donuts as late-night snacks to working for Harvard professor B. F. Skinner, Petri worked multiple jobs to help pay for the cost of his education.
Later, these fundraising skills helped start his political career.
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