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Supreme court nominee’s prom date, canoeing misadventure, more

Merrick Garland | Niles West yearbook photo

On a cloudy graduation day in the spring of 1970, a few parents filling the stands of the Niles West High School football stadium began booing and taunting a student on stage who, standing before more than 700 classmates seated on the turf, offered up a rant against the Vietnam war.

People were shouting out, “If you don’t like this country then leave!” and “Cry baby!”

One fed up parent walked up and pulled the plug on the young man’s microphone. Students began shouting “Let him finish,” and he was plugged back in and finished up.

“You could just see the cringing faces of school administrators on stage,” recalled Doug Mann, who graduated that day.

Merrick Garland, class valedictorian, spoke next.

“He came up went away from his prepared speech to invoke the words of the First Amendment and said ‘I may not agree what that speaker just said, but I will defend till my death his right to say it,'” said Mann, a sports statistician who lives in Los Angeles.

“And he silenced the crowd, which, at that age, to do something like that . . . and it has resonated with me and stayed with me all these years, and if you’re trying to gain any perspective on what type of person this man is, that would be it right there,” Mann said.

MORE: Will Judge Garland become a political piñata?

President Barack Obama apparently agrees. On Wednesday, speaking from the White House Rose Garden, he referenced the spontaneous act to help explain why he chose to nominate Garland to the Supreme Court of the United States.

“The moment was prophetic in a sense,” said fellow classmate and longtime pal, Chicago attorney Barry Rosen, who is a partner at the law firm Reed Smith. “And after that, everyone one of his classmates got up and applauded.”

Brandon Leavitt said Wednesday that many classmates wrongly remember him as the guy who spoke up against the Vietnam war, and understandably so, because he led the antiwar movement on campus.

“I wish I could say it was me,” said Leavitt, who didn’t want to name the actual speech giver, noting that the guy now has a government job. On going to school with Garland: “He was just a very outstanding dude,” Leavitt said.

Garland was in debate, theater, student government, scholastic clubs — and the list goes on and on, said friends who marveled he found time to sleep.

Merrick Garland in a school photo | Courtesy Niles West
Merrick Garland in a school photo | Courtesy Niles West

“Unless you were a greaser smoking cigarettes in the bathroom, most people knew him at Niles West, ” Mann said.

“He was in any honors class that that school offered. If they had honors gym, he would have been in that,” Mann half-joked.

“He was smart but he didn’t hold it over you,” said Dr. Earl Steinberg, who served as Garland’s best man and his classmate from kindergarten through college, where the two roomed together for four years at Harvard.

“We went on a camping trip once in college to Jackson Hole and were canoeing on Jackson Lake — a group of guys in two separate canoes — when this big storm blew up quickly, and it got really nasty and hard to keep the canoes afloat. You couldn’t see anything,” Steinberg recalled Wednesday.

“We didn’t know what the hell we were gonna do, and Merrick was able to paddle to shore and send a rescue boat out to look for us and the boat found us. But when Merrick, who was standing on shore, saw the empty canoe being towed behind the rescue boat, he thought we were dead. So when he finally saw us he told me ‘Oh my God! I’m glad you’re here. I didn’t know what I was gonna tell your mother!'” Steinberg, a former Johns Hopkins professor, said with a laugh.

“I do not think we would have had the ability to get off that lake on our own,” said Rosen, who was also on the stranded canoe — and who went on an unusual triple date with Merrick to senior prom.

“When we were seniors in high school, there were several foreign exchange students from South America who lived in our community and went to Niles West, and Merrick and I and Earl knew they didn’t have dates for senior prom, so we took them to prom so that they would have that experience,” Rosen said. “There were three of us and three of them and I drove . . . Merrick thought that it would be a nice thing to do.”

In addition to acting chops — he was in “Oliver” and starred in a modern retelling of the biblical tale of Job — he also had pipes.

A Niles West choir teacher assembled a pop group that included the two friends, and Garland came up with the their name: The West Tones. “We sang Simon and Garfunkel and other pop songs and went to nursing homes to sing for residents,” Steinberg said.

Garland enjoys taking in action flicks, Steinberg said. Perhaps the genre will serve as a stress reliever in the coming weeks as Republicans in Congress seek to block his nomination.

Garland is currently chief judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, generally seen as a natural stepping-stone to the Supreme Court.

“On a circuit court known for strong-minded judges on both ends of the spectrum, Judge Garland has earned a track record of building consensus as a thoughtful, fair-minded judge who follows the law,” Obama said.

“He’s shown a rare ability to bring together odd couples, assemble unlikely coalitions, persuade colleagues with wide-ranging judicial philosophies to sign on to his opinions.”

Garland, 63, was born in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood. His parents lived near 79th Street and Jeffrey Avenue, just west of what is now Rainbow Beach Park.

His father, Cyril Garland, born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Dec. 10, 1915, was a self-employed salesman at the time. The brood later moved to Lincolnwood, and the family patriarch founded Garland Advertising and ran it out of the family home. Cyril Garland died in 2000 at Evanston Hospital.

Shirley Garland, his mother, was director of volunteer services at the Council for Jewish Elderly. She was also Niles Township District 219 school board president in the 1970s.

She couldn’t be reached Wednesday. Several notes from reporters were jammed under the front door of her ranch style home in Lincolnwood.

Garland grew up with two sisters, Jill, who lives in Chicago, and Heidi, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, not far from her brother. Garland has two daughters. His wife, Lynn, who has a background in physics and engineering, attended Harvard and MIT, and is involved in efforts to ensure the accuracy of voting machines, Steinberg said.

“In high school Merrick was not in a clique and — brilliantly, wonderfully — he got along with everybody,” said former classmate Jody Zacher Weinberg. “He was raised right.”

News of Garland’s nomination spread pride Wednesday at Niles West in Skokie.

“I got on the PA and announced it to the school,” Principal Jason Ness said. “Typically when I get on the PA it’s about a tornado drill or an evacuation or something . . . but this was something that was historical.”

Merrick Garland was quite active at Niles West, according to his yearbook | Courtesy Niles West
Merrick Garland was quite active at Niles West, according to his yearbook | Courtesy Niles West