Congressman Thomas E. Petri ’62 got his first taste of the life of a politician when he was still an undergraduate living in Quincy House.
His senior year, Petri was mistaken for Congressman Frank B. “Brad” Morse, who was scheduled to give a talk at the College.
“Tim came down there, and they thought that he was the Congressman because Congressman Morse hadn’t shown up yet, and he played along with it,” said Bruce K. Chapman ’62, his Quincy House roommate. “Finally the real Congressman came in, and it dawned on the crowd around Tim that he was not the Congressman.”
Petri, now a 17-term congressman for Wisconsin’s 6th district, remains a Wisconsinite at heart. Originally from the small town of Fond du Lac, friends and family say that Petri remains distinctly un-Washingtonian.
“Most people don’t swim around Lake DeNeveu anymore because they are all in their boats,” said his daughter, Alexandra A. Petri ’10, a humor blogger for the Washington Post. “But there’s always this one man swimming in it. That’s my dad.”
“He completely belies the stereotype of people in Congress,” agreed Chapman.
A HARVARD START
Before he even set foot in Harvard Yard, Petri knew he had a burning interest in politics.
“My grandfather always thought that people took the advantageous opportunities that they had in the United States for granted and that you should be as active as you could and take advantage of the opportunities you had,” Petri said.
With a taste for political and leadership organizations, Petri had already participated in Boys State during high school. When he arrived in Massachusetts Hall as a freshman, he joined the campus Republican club and the Student Council. Later, Petri founded the Ripon Society, a Republican political organization for graduate students and young professionals, while serving as a proctor in Thayer Hall.
“He had leadership written all over him from the start,” said Chapman. “He was one of those kids who if you’d gone to high school with him you would have said he’s bound to go into politics someday.”
As a sophomore, Petri joined Quincy House, where he plugged into the politically charged atmosphere.
“One thing that people certainly knew when we were there was that Quincy House was the political house,” Chapman said.
While he concentrated in Government, Petri also had what Chapman called “great economic sense.” From selling milk, sandwiches, cookies, and donuts as late-night snacks to working for Harvard professor B. F. Skinner, Petri worked multiple jobs to help pay for the cost of his education.
Later, these fundraising skills helped start his political career.
“I think he knew that if you are going to go into politics, you need to have some financial underpinnings. He was a careful investor from a very early age, and he thought about it and read about it,” Chapman said.
The politically charged atmosphere on campus in the 1960s also helped shape Petri’s academic and political interests.
“He was excited to be at Harvard and make a difference in the world, and I think that’s true of his friends as well. He always had this tremendous intellectual curiosity,” said Alexandra, a former Crimson editorial columnist.
AROUND THE WORLD
After graduating from the College in 1962, Petri initially considered joining the Peace Corps, but decided to defer his Peace Corps mission to Ethiopia when he was accepted to Harvard Law School.
“I wrote them back and said that if they were interested in having someone with a legal background to let me know in three years, and believe it or not, they did,” Petri said.
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1965, Petri traveled to Somalia with the Peace Corps.
“He claims that he can make a camel meat curry, but he’s never demonstrated this because we’ve been unable to supply him with camel meat,” said Alexandra, joking about the skills he gained in Somalia.
But Petri also made a tangible impact while abroad. Because of his political and legal experience, he helped organize Somalia’s legal code by translating laws from Italian to English.
“For a young person getting out of Harvard, to be given the chance to help a new country create its laws and legal system was pretty incredible,” Chapman said.
After the Peace Corps, Petri remained in Somalia with the U.S. Agency for International Development to help negotiate the construction for new a waterworks project in Mogadishu, for which he was later recognized by Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
ENTERING THE POLITICAL WORLD
Petri arrived back in the United States ready to enter the political sphere.
He returned to Wisconsin, was elected to the Wisconsin State Senate in 1972, and began a decades-long career as a U.S. Representative in 1979. Soon after, he met his wife Anne D. Neal ’77 through a mutual friend in Washington, D.C. They have one daughter, Alexandra.
“Alexandra is a much more accomplished Harvard student than I,” Petri joked. “I am already known around here as Alexandra Petri’s father.”
Petri’s ties to his Quincy House friends remain strong.
“[Former Quincy roommate J. Eugene] Marans and my dad always get together during the holidays and swap gifts,” said Alexandra. “They might have re-gifted each other the same tie the past seven years.”
And despite his long career, Petri remains the same person at heart.
“I don’t think his personality or beliefs have changed so much as they have deepened,” Chapman said.
—Staff writer Megan B. Prasad can be reached at email@example.com.