Discover more from East Wing Magazine
Park Ridge is the ‘Village’ That Helped Raise Hillary Rodham Clinton
Family, friends, freedom and the community that created the foundation of a female political force.
This is the first story in a two-part series analyzing how Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 1950s-60s upbringing in her hometown of Park Ridge, Illinois, shaped her unprecedented political profile.
While a steady late summer drizzle persists outside, Sue Saccomanno sits inside on a quiet Sunday morning reflecting on the mature, tree-lined neighborhood where she and her husband, Joe, raised their children. They’re grown now, she says. Meanwhile, just down the hall is the lively laughter of Joe Saccomanno playing on the floor with their young grandchildren.
This is the kind of neighborhood where kids walk to school. The Saccomannos’ kids, while growing up, would even come home for lunch during the school day. And the neighbor’s kids were best friends with their kids. Then, like a line out of a movie from another era, Sue Saccomanno says, “We left the back door open.”
It’s a safe, nurturing place to raise a family.
This is Park Ridge, Illinois.
Some 70 years earlier, this Chicago border community would become the bedrock of character for its eventual, most notable native — Hillary Rodham Clinton.
As former first lady to her husband William Jeffferson Clinton (the 42nd president), Hillary Clinton’s ascent is unrivaled among other former first ladies. When the two-term Clinton administration ended in 2001, Hillary Clinton went on to serve as U.S. senator from New York (2001 to 2009) followed by serving as the U.S. secretary of state (2009-2013) under President Barack Obama. She was the first woman selected as the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. Her bid for the presidency against Donald J. Trump, the Republican nominee, won the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million (the largest popular vote margin of any losing presidential candidate at the time), but did not win her the election. So when considering the force that is Hillary Clinton, it’s not unusual to wonder how it came to be.
“I think what’s so interesting to me about Park Ridge is not what it has become, but what it gave us.”
— Historian Allida Black
Or, as Allida Black, historian and advisor to Hillary Clinton, told East Wing Magazine in a recent Zoom interview, “I think what’s so interesting to me about Park Ridge is not what it has become, but what it gave us.”
The Rodhams come to Park Ridge
Park Ridge, seven square miles in size and a population of about 39,000, is situated on the border of Chicago’s northwest side. In 1950, the town was less than half the size with about 16,600 people, but had the same small town, endearing qualities that the Saccomannos talk about today. It’s one of many things they have in common with Hillary Clinton, who moved to Park Ridge from Chicago with her parents a few years after her birth in 1947.
The daughter and oldest child of Dorothy and Hugh Rodham, Hillary Diane Rodham grew up with two younger brothers, Hugh and Tony. Her mother was a homemaker and her father, a World War II U.S. Navy veteran and Republican, operated a small business that designed, printed and sold draperies.
The Rodham family lived in a middle-class, two-story brick home on the corner of Elm and Wisner streets in Park Ridge. There, Hillary Rodham Clinton attended Eugene Field Elementary School, Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School and graduated in 1965 from the then newly-built Maine South High School after attending the first three years at Maine East High School.
In high school, she was a member of the National Honor Society, student council and debate team, according to the Park Ridge Public Library. She was elected class vice president during her junior year, but lost the election for class president her senior year against two boys of whom told her, “you are really stupid if you think a girl can be elected president,” according to an excerpt from Carl Bernstein’s 2007 book “A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
“There were never any distinctions made between boys and girls,” Hillary Clinton told C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb. “If my father was throwing pass patterns around our elm trees, I ran with the boys just as everybody else in the neighborhood did.”
In Park Ridge, Hillary Clinton describes her childhood as free and independent.
“We were lucky to live in a great suburb with great schools. We could come and go because it was a safe neighborhood,” Hillary Clinton says in the C-SPAN interview. “Nearly every day in the summertime, I'd ride my bike to the library, to the pool, to play with my friends. And my mother would say, ‘Be home in time for dinner,’ and nobody worried about me.”
There were also other character-building moments that were foundational during Hillary Clinton’s upbringing, according to Black, a scholar at the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. She describes one such instance when her mother, Dorothy Rodham, insisted the young Hillary stand up to a neighborhood boy after an altercation occurred. “Dorothy Rodham sent her back out,” Black says, adding she told her not to come to her if he hit her again. Her mother instructed her to hit him back and hit him back hard. “[The community] gave you that safe space to develop that courage.”
An ‘intractable bond’ among childhood friends
And, it wasn’t just the neighborhood. There was Elizabeth King, Hillary Clinton’s fifth grade teacher who, according to Black, had a “huge” influence on Hillary and her close-knit friends who were in and out of the Rodham house during that time. They were trusted friends who would stay close to Hillary throughout her adulthood. In fact, Betsy Johnson Ebeling, Hillary Clinton’s best friend, helped spearhead the 2019 local documentary “Dare to Dream” for the Park Ridge Historical Society. She later passed away before the 14-minute production was finished. The documentary, dedicated to Ebeling, chronicles Hillary Clinton’s childhood experiences in Park Ridge through the 1950s and 1960s as told through the stories of classmates who grew up with her.
They recall the opportunities Hillary had that built her foundation of leadership, including in sixth grade when she was made captain of the crossing guards.
“She organized us — put everybody on two corners,” says Ebeling in the documentary. And the accomplishments scroll on as the film highlights high school yearbook page after yearbook page of organizations Hillary Clinton took part in.
And then there was Don Jones, a Methodist youth minister who mentored Hillary Clinton. “You cannot underestimate the impact he had on Hillary’s faith,” Black says. Dorothy Rodham also served as a Sunday school teacher at the First United Methodist Church in Park Ridge. Ebeling remembers Hillary being impacted by the social work the church did in helping the children of families working at the nearby Arlington Race Track.
“I know it was quite an impressive outing for her,” Ebeling says in the documentary. “Several times she really saw that there were children who weren’t living a Park Ridge life.”
Later during the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, Hillary had a chance meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The encounter really opened her eyes, say friends in the documentary.
“After that really moving experience of hearing his thoughts on things,” says Patsy Henderson Bowles, “Hillary organized some babysitting for migrant workers’ children — a group of students who would go and help babysit.”
Hillary Clinton’s childhood friendships are an intractable bond stemming from growing up in Park Ridge, says Black. “They’re still extraordinarily close,” she says of Hillary and her Park Ridge friends. “It’s a remarkable story about that community.”
Eventually, when it came to raising her own daughter, Chelsea, during Bill Clinton’s governorship in Arkansas and later under the presidential limelight, Hillary Clinton admittedly struggled giving her daughter the same sense of normalcy.
In her attempt to do so, she says in the C-SPAN interview, she fell back on her upbringing in Park Ridge.
The legacy nextdoor
For the Saccomannos, the neighborhood held the same allure when they located there in the late 1980s. Joe Saccomanno worked for the city and Sue raised their children and worked part-time at the hospital. But, it wasn’t until after they settled in their home that a neighbor enlightened them about the brick home facing theirs directly across the street. It was the childhood home of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“I had no idea,” Sue Saccomanno says.
“[The Clintons] would come on over and have cocktails,” Joe Saccomanno says. “It was just really something to hear about, you know, what happened in this house.”
And then the stories from neighbors flowed about their own home and the parties that both Bill and Hillary Clinton attended, during his term as Arkansas governor, in the Saccomannos’ living room when it was previously owned by old friends of the Rodhams. “[The Clintons] would come on over and have cocktails,” Joe Saccomanno says. “It was just really something to hear about, you know, what happened in this house.”
That was during Bill Clinton’s political rise. Years later, things would dramatically change on Elm and Wisner streets again — this time with Hillary Rodham Clinton’s rise.
This is the first story of a two-part series. Read the second part next week.
East Wing Magazine is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.