Sarah Who?

Kevin Taylor

The Inlander | September 10, 2008
Today, Sarah Palin is a high-profile, sass-talking, self-described lipstick-wearing pit bull. And she's possibly headed for the White House. But 25 years ago, a kid with big '80s hair came down from a small Alaska town to attend two colleges in Idaho (among five she attended in all) and was so nondescript that even teachers and students who know they shared a class with her have no memories of her.

It was 1983 and North Idaho was a hotbed of white separatists. The Rev. Richard Butler's Church of Jesus Christ Christian had its compound in Hayden. Students, especially in journalism and political science classes, frequently discussed the white separatist presence, North Idaho College instructors of the era say. Palin took an American National Government class at NIC in the fall of 1983, says retired political science instructor Tony Stewart.

"The only reason I know that is because records indicate as much. I have no recollection of her personally," Stewart says. "I had 12,000 students, and the ones I tend to remember are the ones who still live here, or stayed in touch with me or were officers in student government."

Palin remains something of a cipher to teachers and classmates during her two semesters in 1983 at NIC, and later at the University of Idaho in Moscow, where she graduated in 1987 with a bachelor's in journalism.

Records show she was there, but there are scant memories.

"We're really up the creek with her. Nobody seems to remember her," says Nils Rosdahl, journalism instructor at North Idaho College.

College records show Palin had no declared major at NIC and was enrolled in general studies. Rosdahl, who arrived at NIC in 1984, says he scoured the student newspaper (then known as the Cardinal Review, now the Sentinel) for any evidence Palin was involved and found none. His predecessor, Tim Pilgrim, who now teaches journalism at Western Washington University in Bellingham, also says he has no memory of Palin being involved in the NIC journalism program.

There are similar stories from the University of Idaho.

"Back in those days, if somebody were to ask me if there was one person I know on this campus who would wind up nominated for vice president ... I don't think in a million years I would guess the name of Sarah Heath," says Brian Long, a journalism classmate of Palin's at Idaho.

The rest of the nation may now be catching up, but the buzz about Palin first rippled through North Idaho in 2006 when she was elected Alaska governor. Palin's parents, Chuck and Sally Heath, were teachers in Sandpoint and still have friends there. Palin was born in Sandpoint but was 3 months old when her parents left for Skagway, Alaska.

Even with a two-year head start on the gossip circuits, no specific anecdotes about Palin's return to the Idaho Panhandle for college have emerged.

"I appear to be the only one who remembers her," Long says, citing a circle of former UI classmates and frat brothers who stay in touch via email. Long, 44, is now an attorney in Coeur d'Alene with a family law/criminal defense practice.

In his mind's eye, Long can still see Palin sitting in the second row of a news writing class that, if typical of the times, had about 30 students. He suspects he and Palin were paired for an introductory exercise on the first day of class.

"It was the one where two people interview each other and then introduce the other person to the class. And I think I was paired with her because I remember we were both born in Sandpoint and both born in 1964," says Long, who is four months younger than Palin. "I don't want to say anything inaccurate, because I don't want her to call me next week. I have a friend who says I should tell people she was in the Young Democrats," he laughs, "but in case she wins, I don't want to be rendered to Bahrain or someplace where I will never be seen again. So I'm not going to make up any stories."

Records show Palin lived in Theophilus Towers, the 12-story dorm on the closed campus. The towers are for regular students and are across campus and have separate dining facilities from Greek Row, where Long lived.

He was elected student body president in 1986-87 and remembers leading protests against proposed fee hikes. The college president at the time, Richard Gibbs, raised pumpkins as a hobby, Long says, "... so our chant was 'Raise pumpkins, not fees.'"

Long also remembers protests for abortion rights. "We had a march around the park in Moscow, people had coat hangars on their heads and we were marching about saving women's lives and not returning to the Dark Ages," Long says.

Given what he knows about Palin, he didn't expect to see here at such events, but adds, "I don't remember her working at the convenience store. I don't remember her being active in student government at all. I don't remember her writing for the Daily Argonaut," the campus newspaper, he says.

Palin appears in the 1987 UI yearbook just once, in her senior portrait with a solemn face. "It was the '80s," Long says, pointing out Palin's photo. "We all had bad hair."

That Palin didn't make much of an impression during her college years is somewhat at odds with her time during high school at Wasilla, Alaska.

She was quiet, but not shy, says Don Teeguarden, her high school basketball coach who now lives north of Spokane.

"My memories of her and her siblings, I never saw them in a situation where they seemed uncomfortable. They were poised and self-confident and obviously they learned that from their mom and dad," Teeguarden says.

Teeguarden both coached and taught with Palin's father, Chuck Heath, at Wasilla High School but did not know the Heaths converted from Catholicism to Assembly of God during Sarah's teen years. He does remember her as being devout.

"During her junior year, we were in Juneau at the state basketball tournament. We lost by four in the state championship game on Saturday night. My assistant and I got up the next morning and went to find breakfast. We were wondering if the girls slept in or if they stayed up all night or whatever. We're on our way back to the hotel and here comes a group of our players walking down the street. They had all gotten up early and gone to church," Teeguarden says. "That's an indication of where the group was as a whole -- and Sarah was right in the middle with her sister Heather -- an indication of where they were mentally and spiritually and what was important in their lives rather than feel sorry for a loss."

Teeguarden says travel to high school basketball games can be unusual in Alaska, given harsh winters, and includes bus rides of up to 600 miles one way, and taking airplanes or ferries to places unreachable by road.

He remembers taking the team to a tournament at the fishing village of Cordova, which meant taking the bus from Wasilla to Valdez and then a ferry. As the team was starting the return trip on a Sunday morning, he remembers seeing Palin and other students gathered at the front of the ferry. "Here we were just getting out of the harbor and a high percentage of the boys' and girls' basketball teams were having an impromptu church service," Teeguarden says. The prayer was student-initiated, he says.

"It was all kid-generated. Absolutely. It was in the days before it was a big issue. There are places now where that wouldn't necessarily be favorably received," Teeguarden says.

Wasilla, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, "was a different world," Teeguarden says. Palin came of age in an era of great change around Wasilla. People were moving north either for the tang of the wild or for pipeline jobs, and the small city transformed from “being still farm-ish” to becoming a bedroom suburb of Anchorage, about a 40-minute drive away.

"There was a time at Wasilla High School that we'd get 100 new kids in September and by November, 50 would be gone but 75 more would take their place," Teeguarden says. During this time of significant change, other families, Teeguarden says, would often "come up on a gamble that they are going to get a job and sometimes it works out very well, other times not. That's the environment Sarah grew up in."

Palin's dad, Chuck Heath, became well liked as a teacher and coach, Teeguarden says, so his family was quickly rooted in the community.

"He knew every kid in town and kids had fun with him," says Teeguarden, who was an assistant track coach for Heath.

Teeguarden has an anecdote about Palin's competitiveness and patience. The class in front of hers had three exceptionally talented athletes who played guard on the girls' basketball team, he says. Palin and another player were stuck on the junior varsity until they were seniors.

"It was a tough lineup to crack. Obviously they wanted to play more. They were good enough to play more ... but whose playing time were they going to get?" Teeguarden asks. Instead of quitting or transferring, "they stayed and they were pretty hungry." As a senior point guard, Palin helped the team win Wasilla's first state championship in any sport.

"She's pretty competitive," Teeguarden says, "and if you saw her speech last night [Sept. 3] you can see that hasn't changed."

The Inlander

Founded in 1993, The Inlander has quickly become the most trusted source of news and entertainment information for the sprawling Inland Northwest. While the majority of our readership lives in the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene area -- a fast-growing part of the...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 1227 W. Summit Parkway, Spokane, WA 99201
  • Phone: (509) 325-0634