This Is Where Donald Trump Played By The Rules And Learned To Beat The Game

Nov 10, 2015
Originally published on November 10, 2015 4:06 pm

This story is part of NPR's series Journey Home. We're going to the places presidential candidates call home and finding out what those places tell us about how they see the world.

Donald Trump's freewheeling, off-the-cuff campaign style can sometimes make him look like he's winging it. Playing by the rules is not what the billionaire presidential candidate is known for. But during a little-known time in his childhood — military school — playing the game meant following the rules. And Trump learned how to win at it.

When Rules Were Meant To Be Broken

Before military school, Trump was famous for breaking the rules. Long before buildings would be named after him, schoolmates used the Trump name as shorthand for getting into trouble.

"We used to refer to our detention as a 'DT' — a 'Donny Trump' — because he got more of them than most other people in the class," said Paul Onish, one of Trump's grade school classmates.

Onish calls Trump one of his best friends at the Kew-Forest School in Forest Hills, Queens. Trump attended the school through seventh grade, and the two of them got into trouble together constantly — talking out of turn during class, passing notes and throwing spitballs. Onish remembers a few stunts on the soccer field, too.

"There was even a couple of incidences during half-time when we would eat whole oranges without peeling them in front of the competition to show them how tough we really were," Onish said.

Getting Sent Up The River

It was the late 1950s — and in the quiet, well-to-do community of Jamaica Estates, Queens, the nonstop antics became embarrassing for Trump's parents.

So right before eighth grade, Trump's father sent him literally up the river to New York Military Academy in the Hudson Valley. Trump would spend the next five years there.

Retired Col. Ted Dobias remembers the tall, lanky kid who showed up at his dormitory.

"I put [him] down at the end of the hall. He didn't know how to make a bed. He didn't know how to shine his shoes. He had a problem, you know, with being a cadet. You know, being a cadet, you gotta take care of yourself," Dobias said.

And Trump the cadet didn't quite know how, at first. Dobias had a reputation for being one of the school's toughest instructors. He was a hardened World War II veteran who made it clear to Trump — he didn't care who his daddy was.

"When he got out of line, he got the same treatment like everybody else. His name was Donald Trump, like Johnny Jones. It was all the same," Dobias said. "Nobody was different. We treated everyone alike."

When Following The Rules Becomes The Game

New York Military Academy, or NYMA, is tucked in a small speck of a town called Cornwall-on-Hudson. It's a short drive from West Point. Arriving here is like stepping back in time. Antique cannons squat on green fields. Buildings date back to the 1800s.

Back in Trump's day, cadets would wake up near the crack of dawn, hurry into their uniforms and march in formation to breakfast. First-year cadets had to eat their meals squared-off — lifting their forks in a right angle path into their mouths. And after breakfast, they'd scurry back to clean their rooms for inspection. Dobias said it was a place where kids who didn't like following the rules learned to like it.

"It's a hell of a thing for a kid to go to a military school — especially when you have to say, 'Yes sir,' 'No sir,' have to learn how to salute, how to do about-face, how to march, how to carry a gun," said Dobias.

But instead of recoiling from the discipline, Trump thrived under it. In her book The Trumps: Three Generations of Builders and a Presidential Candidate, Gwenda Blair notes how "Donald seemed to welcome being in a place with clear-cut parameters, a place where he could focus on figuring out how to come out on top and get what he wanted."

Mike Kabealo, one of Trump's roommates at NYMA, said in the confines of the school's rigid rules, Trump wanted to be a standout.

"Cocksure, positive and anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better kind of stuff — you know, he was very competitive," Kabealo said.

And friends say Trump channeled that competitiveness into everything at military school. When he was in charge of the rifle rack, he cleaned the rifles obsessively. He was meticulous about his uniform. When it was his turn to do inspections in the barracks, he whipped other cadets into shape.

"My bed wasn't really made right, and he ripped it," said Ted Levine, another student who roomed with Trump at NYMA.

Trump tore Levine's sheets off during inspections one morning. Levine's bed hadn't passed muster.

"Then I lost it. I totally lost it. So I think I hit him with a broomstick," remembered Levine. "And he came back at me — with his hands. He was bigger than me. And it took three people to get him off me."

Levine was 4 feet 11 inches tall back then. Trump was 6 feet 2 inches. In the pecking order of young boys, that size gave Trump authority. It also helped him excel in athletics. Trump became captain of the baseball team, and Dobias was his coach.

"He was very coachable," Dobias said. "If I told him, 'Do this,' he'll do it. If I told him to do it the other way, he'll do it that way. So that's what made him a good baseball player. He accepted criticism. He wanted to be best. Not better."

Trump was made a cadet captain at NYMA — one of the highest honors for graduates.

And then there were the girls. Classmates said so many girls visited Trump on Sundays.

"The type of women who were coming up to see him or he was bringing were definitely from the upper levels of New York society," said classmate George White. "I mean, I remember there were so many, it was a revolving door."

Trump was voted "Ladies' Man" in his high school senior yearbook. His friends say he cared about his hair even then — growing it to the maximum length regulations would allow, so it would look fuller.

'An Air Of Superiority'

But as alluring as Trump may have been to the ladies, he had a way of laughing when others spoke that used to get on some of the guys' nerves.

"It made you feel like he was separating himself from you. It made you feel like there was an air of superiority. Just enough of a signal that he was laughing at you," White said.

And maybe it was that quality that made it difficult to get close to Trump.

"I don't think he had a handful of loyalists, you know?" Levine, his former roommate, said. "Because he was so competitive that everybody who could come close to him he had to destroy."

But now, more than 50 years later, Levine says he and the other guys still kind of admire Trump.

Today Levine's office is littered with Donald Trump knickknacks. Like a talking Trump doll that belts out Trumpisms such as "Brand yourself and toot your own horn," and "Have an ego — there's nothing wrong with ego."

Sometimes, Levine said, he squeezes the doll for advice.

"It's reinforcement — positive reinforcement of true values that are very important for businessmen," he said.

Values like winning — how to fight back and win.

Levine gave the doll another squeeze.

"Never give up," the doll squawked. "Under any circumstances, never give up."

Levine said he didn't learn that one from Trump — they both learned that one in military school.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The next Republican debate is tonight in Wisconsin. And as in past debates, much of the focus will be on the front-runner, Donald Trump. Playing by the rules is not what Trump is known for. His free-wheeling, off-the-cuff podium style can make him look like he's winging it. But Trump is more calculated than many give him credit for. As part of NPR's series on the backgrounds of political candidates, The Journey Home, Ailsa Chang takes us to a little-known time in his childhood when rules were meant to be followed, military school.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: What Donald Trump was famous for before military school was breaking the rules. Long before buildings would be named after him, schoolmates borrowed the Trump name for this.

PAUL ONISH: We used to refer, our detention, as a DT, a Donny Trump.

CHANG: Why was that?

ONISH: Because he got more of them than most other people in the class.

CHANG: That's Paul Onish, Trump's grade-school friend. They both got in trouble constantly, talking out of turn during class, passing notes, throwing spit balls and goofing off on the soccer team.

ONISH: There was even a couple of incidences during halftime when we would eat whole oranges, without peeling them, in front of the competition to show them how tough we really were.

CHANG: OK, so this was the 1950s. This kind of stuff was embarrassing for Trump's well-to-do parents in Jamaica Estates, Queens. So before eighth grade, his father sent him literally up the river to New York Military Academy in the Hudson Valley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: Colonel Ted Dobias remembers the tall, lanky kid who showed up at his dormitory.

TED DOBIAS: He didn't know how to make a bed. He didn't know how to shine his shoes. He had a - he had a problem, you know, with being a cadet. You know, being a cadet, you've got to take care of yourself.

CHANG: And Trump the cadet didn't quite know how at first. Dobias had a reputation for being one of the school's toughest instructors. And he made it clear to Trump he didn't care who his daddy was.

DOBIAS: When he got out of line, he got the same treatment like everybody else. His name was Donald Trump, like Johnny Jones, you know. And that was all the same. Nobody was different.

CHANG: New York Military Academy is tucked in a small speck of a town called Cornwall on Hudson. Arriving here is like stepping back in time. Antique cannons squat on green fields. Buildings date back to the 1800s.

FLETCHER BAILEY: Wright Hall was a dormitory at one time. It's not being used now.

CHANG: Master Sergeant Fletcher Bailey gave me a tour of the grounds on a chilly autumn day.

BAILEY: This is Jones Barracks, which is a dormitory.

CHANG: Back in Trump's day, cadets would wake up near the crack of dawn, hurry into their uniforms and march in formation to breakfast. First-year cadets had to eat their meals squared off, lifting their forks in a right-angle path into their mouths. And after breakfast, they'd scurry back to clean their rooms for inspection. Colonel Dobias says it was a place where kids who didn't like following the rules learned to like it.

DOBIAS: It's a hell of a thing for a kid to, you know, go to military school, especially when they had to say, yes, sir, no, sir, had to learn how to salute, how to do about-face, how to march, how to carry a gun.

CHANG: But instead of recoiling from the discipline, Trump thrived under it. Mike Kabealo, a classmate, says in the confines of these rigid rules, Trump wanted to be a standout.

MIKE KABEALO: Cocksure, positive and anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better kind of stuff, you know? He was very competitive.

CHANG: And friends say Trump channeled that competitiveness into everything at military school. When he was in charge of the rifle rack, he cleaned the rifles obsessively. He was meticulous about his uniform. When it was his turn to do inspections in the barracks, he whipped other cadets into shape. Ted Levine was Trump's roommate.

TED LEVINE: My bed wasn't really made right. And he ripped it.

CHANG: Trump tore Levine's sheets right off. His bed hadn't passed muster.

LEVINE: Then I lost it (laughter). I totally lost it. So I think I hit him with a boot and a broomstick. And he came back at me. And...

CHANG: With the broomstick?

LEVINE: No, with his hands. He was bigger than me. And it took three people to get him off me (laughter).

CHANG: Levine was 4-foot-11, Trump, 6-2. In the pecking order of young boys, that size gave him authority. Trump became captain of the baseball team. And Colonel Dobias was his coach.

DOBIAS: He was very coachable, yes. If I told him to do this, he'll do it. If I told him to do it the other way, he'll do it that way. So that's what made him a good baseball player. He accepted criticism. He wanted to be best, not better.

CHANG: And then there were the girls - so many girls - visiting on Sundays.

GEORGE WHITE: Extremely attractive, well-dressed women.

CHANG: Classmate George White still cannot forget them.

WHITE: The type of women who were coming up to see him or he was bringing were definitely from the upper levels of New York society. I mean, I remember there were so many, it was a revolving door.

CHANG: Trump was voted ladies' man in his senior yearbook. His friends say he cared about his hair even then, growing it to the maximum length regulations would allow so it would look fuller. And Trump had this way of laughing when others spoke that used to get on White's nerves.

WHITE: It made you feel like he was separating himself from you. It made you feel like there was an air of superiority - just enough of a signal that he was laughing at you.

CHANG: As his roommate Levine says, maybe it was that quality that made it difficult to get close to Trump.

LEVINE: I don't think he had a handful of loyalists, you know, because he was so competitive that everybody who could come close to him he had to destroy.

CHANG: But now, 50 years later, Levine says he and the other guys still kind of admire Trump. Today, Levine's office is littered with Donald Trump knickknacks, like this talking doll.

(SOUNDBITE OF TALKING DOLL)

DONALD TRUMP: (As Donald Trump doll) This one's easy for me. You're fired.

LEVINE: So I go back to these, and there's one favorite one I have.

CHANG: Sometimes, Levine says, the Donald gives him guidance about how to run his packaging business.

Wait, wait, wait, so you really squeeze this doll for advice?

LEVINE: Once in a while, yes. I just - it's reinforcement, positive reinforcement of true values that are very important for businessman.

CHANG: Values like winning, how to fight back and win.

(SOUNDBITE OF TALKING DOLL)

TRUMP: (As Donald Trump doll) Never give up under any circumstances. Never give up.

CHANG: Well, Levine says he didn't learn that one of from Trump. They both learned that in military school. Ailsa Chang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.