Sobran Column -- Tragedy in Paradise
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Tragedy in Paradise

November 11, 1999

I would have believed it of anyone else, but not George Roche. Since 1971 George Roche III has been president of Michigan’s Hillsdale College, a few miles from where I grew up. As the school’s dynamic young president, he turned Hillsdale into a conservative mecca, featuring such distinguished visiting speakers as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Milton Friedman, and William F. Buckley Jr., among many others.

Roche was as handsome as an old-time Hollywood star. I used to kid him about this; he was almost too handsome, like the smooth guy who is engaged to the heroine until the last reel, when she realizes she really loves the less polished but more scrappy hero — Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Cagney, or Mickey Rooney.

Roche also raised a beautiful family with his lovely wife, June. He celebrated the virtues of family life, patriotism, and the free market. He seemed a model of integrity himself, refusing to accept government money for Hillsdale while opposing race and sex quotas. Until last month, his daughter-in-law Lissa Roche worked for the college, editing its widely circulated newsletter, Imprimis.

Three weeks ago Lissa Roche left her house, went to the Hillsdale campus, and shot herself. And George Roche’s secret life came into the open, consuming him.

George Roche had had an affair with Lissa Roche — his daughter-in-law, his son’s wife, his grandchild’s mother — while he was married to June. Last spring he divorced June, after 44 years of marriage. In September he married a woman named Mary Hagan, stunning Lissa.

When Roche was in the hospital in October, suffering from diabetes, Lissa visited him and made a scene. He apparently told her their affair was over and she left distraught. Two days later she killed herself.

Lissa’s shattered husband, George Roche IV, told the whole story to the Hillsdale board of trustees. Meanwhile, his father had left the hospital and flown to Hawaii for a honeymoon with his new wife. During the elder Roche’s absence the board suspended him, pending his return to give an account of himself.

By now the story had reached the Michigan and Ohio media, who cackled over the story of the “family values” college and its incest scandal. It also shocked the conservative movement, in which Roche had been a highly respected figure. Everyone knew George Roche. At least we thought we did.

Roche returned from Hawaii and, protesting his innocence of any improper conduct, refused to resign. He pleaded his case before the trustees on November 10, but they didn’t believe him. After 28 years as Hillsdale’s president, during which he had become the very symbol of the brave little independent college, he was forced to resign. After 28 years, one friend observed, he was leaving the school he had made famous without so much as a farewell tea party.

It’s hard to imagine a more complete disgrace than George Roche’s. At the age of 64, the man who had everything had thrown it all away — family, friends, status, reputation, trust, honor, and the achievement of a lifetime. He had violated every principle he stood for, every virtue he appeared to embody. He had betrayed his wife and son and, to a lesser extent, everyone who loved and admired him.

It was, and is, almost unbelievable. The George Roche I thought I knew turns out to be a fiction I must try to erase from my mind, to be replaced by an object lesson in the diabolically treacherous power of lust. You can only wonder whether his conscience is so hardened that he’ll be able to live with himself.

From my own dealings with Hillsdale I knew Lissa too, though not as well. She was hardly an innocent victim in all this; you have to wonder what led her to her own betrayal of her family and to eventual despair. We can never know now.

Leo Tolstoy once read a newspaper item about a woman who threw herself before an onrushing train. The incident inspired his great novel Anna Karenina — the story of a woman who threw her life away for the delusions of romantic love. Tolstoy knew what we have forgotten: that the moral law is not mocked, and that the moment comes when even God has no more pity.

Joseph Sobran

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