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School of Stars: Judd Apatow, Elaine Chao, Michael Isikoff, W.Va. First Lady?

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It's not every day that you discover one of your high school classmates from Long Island could be the next first lady of West Virginia. But this is what happened when I investigated who would become governor of West Virginia if Gov. Joe Manchin wins a special Senate election this fall to succeed the late Robert Byrd. Turns out it would be state Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, married to Joanne Jaeger Tomblin.

West Virginia? A politician's wife? What were the odds? But when I looked at her photo, I knew. And when I talked to Manchin, he knew all about Syosset High. "You know who else went to your high school?" he said. "Mitch McConnell's wife." That would be Elaine Chao, labor secretary from 2001 to 2009, wife of the Senate Republican leader, and a fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

"Who would have thought two Syosset girls would end up in West Virginia and Kentucky, married to political figures in our states?" Chao asked me. The answer is nobody, especially when one of them arrived in Syosset from Taiwan at age 8, speaking no English. Her story is now documented at the McConnell-Chao Archives at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

The cultural distance from Syosset to Appalachia is not quite as far as the trip from Taiwan, but having lived in Charleston, West Virginia, for two years, I can tell you it's no puddle-jump. Syosset is a suburb of about 20,000, located 30 miles east of New York City. When my parents moved there in 1954, their backyard bordered on a potato farm. There is still a small downtown -- "the village" -- with stores, banks, restaurants, a train station and a post office.

Back in the 1960s, Syosset was so white that the high school brought in black "exchange" students from Mississippi. It was so ethnic (Jewish and Italian) that for many years I thought WASPs were a minority. It was so conservative that girls were not allowed to wear pants to school -- a policy several of us managed to change through civil disobedience. We simply showed up in pants on a cold, snowy day.

During that era, Syosset was trying desperately to maintain its suburban blandness amid a burgeoning drug culture, the magnetic pull of Manhattan on its youth, and anti-war politics gone wild. A year of world history was, for my class, a year of hearing a teacher agonize about Vietnam. When the National Guard opened fire at Kent State, we shut down the school by marching around the building and refusing to go in.

My Syosset classmates from the early '70s are well represented these days in journo-political circles. Beyond Chao and me, there's NBC News national investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff (formerly of Newsweek and The Washington Post); Janet Hook (a respected congressional and politics writer at The Los Angeles Times), and Peter Carlson (a former Post reporter and author of "K Blows Top," a humorous account of Nikita Khrushchev's 1959 visit to the United States).

Isikoff played a central role in the unraveling of the Clinton presidency. As Amazon.com puts it, he "researched the stories that helped turn Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky into household names." Since then he has uncovered news on everything from congressional ethics to Iraq, Afghanistan and terrorism. Back in high school, he was not passionate about journalism or politics, but he wasn't entirely without the skills he would later need. "I used to argue with people all the time," he told me.

Carlson can't remember if he was headline editor or assistant headline editor at The Pulse, the school newspaper, but he has instant recall of his political causes."I worked for Eugene McCarthy," he told me. "I went to the Chicago convention. I went door to door for the Urban League" for its "Give A Damn" campaign. He also picketed outside stores that sold "scab grapes and scab lettuce" during the farm workers' boycott, and "got beat up by goons." He spent the last couple of months of his senior year on a school-approved work program -- helping out at the Law Commune, "a radical law firm that was defending the Panther 21 at that time." Now Carlson freelances and writes a column for American History magazine.

The period that produced us -- 1970-73 -- also generated two MacArthur fellows who received "genius grants," food writer Michael Pollan, at least one Broadway dancer, a professional drummer, a professional violinist (my brother), the publishing chief executive who knew we needed the South Beach diet, a development magnate who started an ethics foundation, and Rick Hodes, a saintly doctor saving lives in Africa. A few years earlier, Syosset had launched noted economist Alan Blinder. A few years later came actress Tracy Pollan (married to Michael J. Fox), author Meg Wolitzer and Barry Weiss, a music VIP who apparently was instrumental in bringing us Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys.

A bit later there was also a guy we knew for years as my cousin's boyfriend. His name was Judd Apatow. And still later, a girl named Natalie Portman, who would become a famous actress and show up at the 2009 White House Correspondents Dinner, where she would encounter Isikoff. "I tried to engage her on the Syosset connection," he recalled. "I said, 'You and I have something in common.' She looked at me like, 'What could I possibly have in common with you?'" Portman was "kind of polite," Isikoff said, until Richard Holbrooke -- our man in charge of solving AfPak -- walked by. "The two of them embraced," Isikoff said, and thus ended the Syosset moment.

The path from Syosset to Washington is more direct than the one to possible first lady of West Virginia. Joanne Jaeger's father urged her to finish her last two years of college at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, never imagining she would stay there. But she began a television career and a masters degree, and participated in a fateful internship program at the Capitol in Charleston. There she met Earl Ray Tomblin, now 58, who had been elected to the House of Delegates at age 20. And she never went home.

That girl, who once spent teenage weekends cheerleading or walking around Manhattan, now has a drawl and a 20-year-old son. She has been president of Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, based in rural Logan, West Virginia, for nine years, and told me she "lives and breathes" community college education. Manchin is considered a strong contender for the Senate seat, but Tomblin won't speculate. Much. "Anything can happen," she said. "You can't say this is going to happen. But my husband's been in politics 38 years and we're prepared to do it. We're very prepared to go."

Syosset High School was a huge school in the early '70s -- 2,700 kids in three grades in a sprawling, five-wing building, riven by countless cliques and claques. I was the restless, non-cheerleader type. I wore a button that said "Question Authority" and, against all adult advice, insisted on skipping 11th grade. I don't think I had much in common then with Chao, the immigrant striver, or Jaeger, the ice-blonde cheerleader. But I think we'd have a lot to talk about now. Over big glasses of wine.
Filed Under: Woman Up, Culture, Campaigns

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Toni Tallarico

That is so cool to read your story about how well your high school classmates has done with their life. You know what they say, the world is a very small place. I think Joanne Jaeger Tomblin will make a wonderful First Lady. I like that fact that she went to Marshall University. The State of West Virginia is hoping that Gov. Manchin will take the late Senater Byrd's seat and then Earl Ray Tomblin will be our next Governor. It's a win win situation for West Virginia.

July 21 2010 at 8:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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