Karl Rove—the early years

The Bush aide’s Nevada years are already starting to develop their own mythology

Karl Rove slept here: George Bush’s embattled political aide Rove (inset) lived in this house in Sparks during his five years in Nevada.

Karl Rove slept here: George Bush’s embattled political aide Rove (inset) lived in this house in Sparks during his five years in Nevada.

Photo By David Robert

The front page of the Nevada State Journal, Reno’s morning newspaper, was covered with stories of the time that would resonate in years to come—an exchange of gunfire across the Cambodian border between U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese forces, a probe of “alleged police brutality toward a Negro” by Reno police, a mention of the boxer Cassius Clay.

Dominating the front page on May 2, 1966, was a photograph of the retiring Washoe County superintendent of schools, Proctor Hug, shaking hands at a public reception with Dilworth Junior High School student Karl Rove.

For years there have been passing references to the Bush political aide’s one-time residence in Sparks, but few hard facts, let alone details, surfaced. It turns out there may be a reason for that—few people remember Rove. Although he was well above the radar, appearing occasionally at public functions like the Hug reception, not many people can be found on whom he made a lasting impression.

“He was just a quiet boy that milled right in with the crowd,” said former Dilworth Principal Jwood Raw, who was then a vice principal. (White House press aide Ken Lisaius said Tuesday Rove was not available for an interview.)

Rove, born on Christmas Day in 1950, enrolled on September 5, 1961, at Drake Elementary School in Sparks. School district records say he arrived in Nevada from Arvada, Colorado. After Drake, he attended Dilworth Junior High School in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades. (The “middle school” concept hadn’t yet arrived in Nevada and local junior high schools kept students through their freshman year.)

Rove’s father and mother, Louis and Reba Rove, were listed in a local city directory beginning in 1961. Louis Rove was a geologist with the Utah Mining Company (one of the six corporations that built Hoover Dam). At the time, the Roves were living at 2195 Nelson Way, a block east of Pyramid Way and just north of the then relatively new Greenbrae Shopping Center.

By 1962, Louis Rove’s title had changed to regional manager and the corporation’s name had changed to Utah Construction and Mining Company. In 1963, the Roves moved to 149 East Gault in Sparks. Karl was the second of five children in the family. His brothers and sisters were Olaf, Reba, Eric and Alma.

In May 1966, the Journal reported that Boy Scout Chapter 175 had been formed with Doug Pierson Sr. as patrol leader and “Karl Rove, assistant senior patrol leader and scribe.” The chapter had 27 members.

Karl Rove has called himself “a nerd” in his school days, and the evidence supports his self-assessment. Raw said one of the things he remembers best about Rove is that he carried a briefcase.

“He was quiet. He carried a briefcase,” Raw said. “That sort of stood out because, you know, there weren’t any other kids in the whole school who carried a briefcase. But ol’ Karl, he carried a briefcase and had all of his papers, homework, all the goodies in it.”

There is a Nevada State Journal photograph of Rove as one of a group of three students planning ceremonies for a testimonial dinner for Veterans of Foreign Wars official Leslie Fry. On the right is a tall, imposing Boy Scout. In the center is a female student who was known as a bombshell (she was a classmate of this writer). On the left is Karl Rove, also a Boy Scout. He appears to be about five feet tall, in a crew-cut and wearing glasses, with his garrison cap tucked in the belt of his uniform. He seems to be a ringer for the nerdy kid who played Woody Allen in Radio Days. Making a linkage between that figure and the one who appears on Newsweek’s cover this week is difficult.

Nevertheless, there he was—in a photo in the Reno morning paper. Even then, he seemed to know how to market himself in small ways. Either that, or he was just lucky.

Raw said he would not even describe Rove as assertive.

“He wasn’t involved in the school officers or class officers or anything like that,” Raw said. “He was just a regular kid that did his thing and he didn’t get in trouble, he stayed out of people’s way. I imagine he was always thinking.

“And he was a little guy. … He wore glasses, little blond-headed boy, quiet, a heck of a good student, just a good student. The teachers, I’m sure, had no problems at all with him in the classroom.”

He may be wrong about that. Rove’s record of scholarship is unimpressive. When he left Nevada he stayed eligible enough at Salt Lake City’s Olympus Senior High School to be elected student senate president, but his outside political activities sapped his grade point average. He failed to graduate from college for the same reason.

Rove has said, in an interview with Time magazine, that he does remember one assignment at Dilworth: “I did write my fifth-grade civics paper on the theory of dialectical materialism,” he told Time. “My son asked me last night what that was, and I told him, and I remember it: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.” (This demonstrates the limits of relying on personal memories for history. In the fifth grade, he would have been at Drake, not Dilworth.)

Rove’s success is a surprise to those who knew him because he was so docile in Sparks—"quiet” is the term that keeps being repeated. No one remembers him as any kind of a strategic thinker.

In August 1966, an item appeared in the Journal’s “Sparks social notes” column—"Karl Rove has joined his family … in Salt Lake City after attending the Teen-age Opportunity Program.” The school district’s records show Rove withdrew on September 6, 1966, five years almost to the day after his enrollment. His records were sent to Olympus in Salt Lake City. It was the end of Rove’s Nevada years.

Rove’s parents separated on his Christmas birthday of 1969, around the time he learned that Louis Rove was his adoptive father. His mother Reba returned to Reno where she once served as a University of Nevada official on senior citizens’ issues and had a hand in starting a senior citizens center.

There is a substantial amount of misinformation on Karl Rove’s stay in Nevada, some of it a product of his critics extrapolating from the known information to make him look as bad as possible. His mother’s reputed suicide, which has little relevance to present-day events, is frequently mentioned on anti-Rove Web pages, including one Democratic National Committee page. Some bloggers have said she killed herself in Reno, many attributing the information to Rove’s biographers James Moore and Wayne Slater. However, while in their book, Bush’s Brain, the authors note that Reba killed herself, they say nothing about it happening in Nevada. There is no record of her dying in Nevada.

“If she killed herself, she did it somewhere else,” said one official. Her name disappears from local directories after 1980.

And there are repeated references to his attendance at Sparks High School. The Web page BrothersJudd.com: “Both [U.S. Rep. James] Gibbons and Rove attended Sparks High School in Nevada, though not at the same time.”

But school district records say Rove never attended Sparks High. According to his records, Rove spent his freshman year at Dilworth before leaving Nevada.

Rove returned to Nevada in 1972 as a Republican figure. By then he had worked in a U.S. Senate campaign in Utah, graduated from high school, and started moving into GOP circles. He arrived in Reno as a representative of a college Republicans group to drum up volunteer support and votes for President Nixon in the first election after the 18-year-old vote was approved. His hair was no longer a crew cut. It was longish, though safely longish.

A story in the Reno Evening Gazette ("Ex-Sparks man tours nation’s campuses for GOP registration") said he attended a luncheon held in Reno at the home of Lucie Humphreys, Republican National Committeewoman from Nevada.

“We are going to encourage in Nevada a series of campus voter registration efforts, led by College Republicans, to gain maximum voter registration strength,” the paper quoted Rove.

When Rove after the turn of the century came to prominence, his sister Reba Hammond of Reno became a cheerleader for him, giving interviews that praised him in glowing terms. (In an interview with Time magazine, Rove publicly stated that his sister exaggerates his childhood accomplishments: “With all due respect to my sister, whom I love dearly, her recollection of these things is a little suspect.")

His brother Eric, however, has not been heard from. They may have had political differences—Eric Rove opposed the war in Vietnam that his brother Karl supported (and avoided). On November 11, 1969, Eric lent his name, along with numerous other Nevadans, to a Nevada State Journal advertisement headlined “WE WANT PEACE NOW.”

Eric Rove is employed with Granite Construction, working on the project to lower the railroad tracks through Reno. He was not available for comment.