George Roche, Captain of Hillsdale Ship
George Roche, president of Hillsdale College for 28 years, from l971 to l999, died May 5 at age 70. His body had been torn by diabetes most of his life. It is nearly impossible to exaggerate his accomplishments. He made Hillsdale College what it is, even today where the foundation he established remains, with the college presently building upon it. He was the captain of the ship, steering the boat and giving us mates direction.
He gave the college the best faculty and the best students it had ever known. He raised $325 million. The endowment when he arrived was $4 million—when he left it was $200 million. He expanded campus facilities by half. He started Imprimis and brought it to just under one million nationwide subscribers.
Then the terrible tragedy: In 1999, George’s daughter-in-law Lissa Roche accused him of "a 19-year affair" and about two hours later put a fatal bullet into her head. The scandal rose to a national frenzy beyond imagination.
George knew full well that given this national frenzy and given the inundation of rumor and speculation, he could not possibly continue to lead the college. On Nov. 9, l999, declaring his innocence privately to the Board of Trustees, he retired. As a close confidante to George, having been a vice president to him for 14 years, I maintained then and do even more so now that he was innocent.
Curiously, I found four different types of individuals surfaced during the days of George’s alleged affair. First, there were the great unwashed who didn’t know what the truth was and so did not make judgments, but had plenty of questions. Second, there were George’s public defenders on the national level: Tom Winter at Human Events; Bill Buckley in his syndicated columns and me. We could all fit into one telephone booth. Third, there were the handwringers who watched George being beat up but stood on the sidelines not wanting to get involved. And fourth, there were those who kicked George when he was down. Many were conservatives.
I have a theory as to why some conservatives like to beat up on their own: It is that they do not want to be perceived as knee-jerk conservatives, but rather as wise, disinterested arbiters of sound judgment, so they beat up on their own to prove it.
On Nov. 5, 2005, I arranged a dinner tribute in Jackson, Mich., in honor of George’s 70th birthday and his remarkable achievements at Hillsdale College. I sent out only 104 invitations, yet an astonishing 101 individuals, from 10 states, came to the tribute. This was positively reflective of the national support out there for George. Could I have used the Imprimis mailing list, the tribute would have had to be held in a major convention center.
At the end of the tributes that night, George read a prepared statement to the audience. It was his swan song. His final paragraph is worth citing:
"Certainly I find myself at the time of life when I’m aware of mortality. So I welcome the chance tonight not only to see each of you again and to say ‘thank you,’ but also to realize that we may also be saying ‘goodbye.’ I leave you with a final thought. Daniel Webster once expressed his feelings toward his beloved Dartmouth College (and, I believe, the feelings of many of us for Hillsdale) when he said, ‘She is only a small college, but there are those of us who love her.’ God bless you all."
These were George’s last public comments—on Hillsdale College and on God’s blessings.