At a competitive high school filled with Baton Rouge’s best and brightest, he chummed with the brainiest and highest achievers of all.
That’s no surprise because Gov. Bobby Jindal is typically described these days as the smartest person in the room. He’s a Brown University graduate and Rhodes scholar, after all. And he scored a 4.62 grade-point average at Baton Rouge Magnet High School when he graduated in 1988.
But this may be a surprise: He was not the valedictorian. Nor was he the salutatorian.
He ranked third among the 232 students.
And if you had asked teachers and classmates back then who might become a politician one day, they probably would have answered Tracy Smith. She was the senior class president. Or they might have mentioned Martin Johnson. He was one of the class’s two delegates to Boys State, a high school training ground for aspiring politicians.
“He wanted to be a doctor at the time,” said Kathy Reznick, his high school sweetheart, who went on to Tulane Law School and has returned to Baton Rouge.
More than anything, Jindal’s demanding immigrant father EXPECTED him to become a doctor.
As a result, best friend Kent Shih was perhaps the only one who knew of his real ambition.
“His parents wanted him to go into medicine,” Shih said. “He always wanted to go into politics.”
For the first time in its 198-year history, a native of Baton Rouge is mounting a serious campaign to be president of the United States. And the intriguing story is how unlikely it is that it would be Jindal, according to nearly everyone who knew him in his formative years, except perhaps Shih, now a doctor in Nashville, Tennessee.
Teachers and classmates knew Jindal had a bright future. He was voted “most likely to succeed” among the boys in his class. And “Most Polite.”
But Jindal had a narrow circle that consisted of the kids who took honors classes, got the best grades and organized parties where they challenged one another with obscure mathematical equations rather than beer-chugging contests. Jindal was typically home before midnight. He was more nerd than politician-on-the-make.
“He didn’t hang out with the popular kids,” said Susan Yang, who was the salutatorian and is now a doctor in St. Louis.
“He was reserved. He was not an extrovert,” said Anu Goel Bourgeois, a close friend from the class of 1987 who is now a Georgia State University professor of computer science.
Slightly built and not a fan of team sports, Jindal didn’t make a name for himself among the student body by winning athletic championships.
Instead, his main extracurricular activity was Mu Alpha Theta, the math club, which traveled to New Orleans and other cities on Saturdays to compete against other schools and which won the state championship in Jindal’s senior year. He gladly provided after-school tutoring for classmates like Dione Hasse, now a management consultant in Nashville, who couldn’t quite keep up.
“He showed up to meetings with bright green pants and a pink polo shirt with an upturned collar,” Hasse said with a laugh. “He was trying to be Mr. Preppy.”
The adolescent years are crucial for anyone, of course. In Jindal’s case, while growing up in Baton Rouge, he Americanized his name, converted to Christianity, began to show off his high-wattage brain power and only occasionally flashed an interest in public policy, but always from a conservative bent.
Thousands of articles have been written about Jindal since he first burst onto the scene in 1996, when newly elected Gov. Mike Foster named him secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals at the precocious age of 24.
None have plumbed his years growing up.
Jindal’s parents moved from India to Baton Rouge on Feb. 1, 1971, so his mother could study nuclear physics in graduate school at LSU. Their son, whom they named Piyush, was born on June 10.
In a recent interview, Jindal said the family initially lived in Tiger Town just off Nicholson Drive.
He was about 4 when his mother picked him up from school one day. As he told the story, “a teacher said, ‘Look, your son came to school and asked everyone to start calling him Bobby.’ ”
He took it from one of the characters on “The Brady Bunch,” the 1970s sitcom.
“That was one of the shows I’d watch after school,” Jindal said. “Bobby was about my age.”
His parents were concerned and asked, “ ‘Are you going to be Greg tomorrow? Are you going to pick a different name the next day?’ Once they realized that it was going to stick, they didn’t have any objection.”
In 1978 or so, the Jindals moved to Kenilworth, a new subdivision near LSU, populated by university professors and oil industry engineers. By then, Bobby had a brother named Nikesh, who is seven years younger.
His father, Amar, worked as a civil engineer, while his mother, Raj, worked at the state labor department as a data processor.
The family’s new ranch-style home, at 7526 Cardiff Ave., had three bedrooms, a brick exterior and a shingle roof. Bobby’s mother had exclusive use of the master bathroom while the three males shared the hallway bathroom. Bobby and his brother played in the yard and rode bikes in the neighborhood. Bobby played tennis through BREC.
“Kenilworth was an idyllic place to grow up,” Jindal said. “It was one of those neighborhoods where you could tell the kids to go and play outside and come back when it’s dark.”
In his early years, no Hindu temple existed in Baton Rouge. So the Jindals and other Indian families met on most Sundays at someone’s home for Hindu ceremonies known as pujas, followed by meals featuring curries and other Indian food.
The family didn’t socialize with the neighbors, remembered Barbara Michael, who raised a family two houses down.
But his parents insisted that they assimilate into American culture, Jindal said.
“My mom was fully committed to raising us as Americans,” he said. “That was a conscious decision. We ate food that would be familiar to other families in south Louisiana. She wanted to raise us like other kids in the neighborhood.”
Jindal attended the private Runnels School through fourth grade and then moved to the public Greenville Elementary School for fifth and then scored well enough to attend Istrouma Middle Magnet for sixth grade and then moved to McKinley Middle Magnet School for seventh and eighth grades. It was at McKinley that Ajay Jindia, who was one year older, saw a flash of his later career.
“I remember having a conversation at his house where he was preaching the benefits of Reaganomics,” said Jindia, now an Atlanta lawyer, referring to the economic philosophy of President Ronald Reagan.
From McKinley, Jindal moved on to Baton Rouge Magnet. The high school had an unusual social dynamic. With no football, baseball or basketball teams — and no cheerleaders — the brainiacs were almost cool.
Jindal is known today for talking fast. His high school friends talk fast, too.
“You could be proud, be smart and be a nerd,” Yang said. “Nerds were not outcasts.”
Most of Jindal’s closest friends were, like him, the children of Asian immigrants who embraced the United States as the land of opportunity and pushed their children to succeed by out-studying everyone else.
“My dad was always reinforcing to my brother and I that you should dream big to achieve anything in life,” Nikesh said. “It requires a lot of hard work and doing academically well in school. That was a message that was continually reinforced by our parents, particularly our dad.”
Jindal and his brother (who would go on to Dartmouth College) took that message to heart. Jindal got only a single B in high school, for a term paper on Huey Long, said Shih, who added, “He was pissed.” (Through his press secretary, Jindal said he got more than one B but wasn’t specific.)
Jindal was active in an array of extracurricular groups that would make a college admissions officer swoon: the Beta Club, the Junior Academy of Science, the Latin Club and Interact, a service club.
But his biggest passion was the math club.
The members raised money by working a concessions booth at LSU football games and played spades on bus trips to tournaments outside of Baton Rouge.
Jindal captained the Equations team, which required quick thinking.
And he dressed like Alex P. Keaton, the conservative high schooler played by Michael J. Fox in the ’80s sitcom “Family Ties.”
“He had a bow tie with dollar bills on it,” said Elaine Parsons, who is now a history professor at Duquesne University. “When the movie ‘Wall Street’ came out, he’d go around saying, ‘Greed is good!’ People would roll their eyes at him.”
For years, Jindal bought bags of candy that he would keep in his backpack and sell individual pieces to sugar-craving students.
Some classmates view it now as a sign of a would-be political operator.
“But I always thought of it as more entrepreneurial,” said Johnson, who is now a professor of political communication at LSU.
Classmates and others who knew Jindal during his formative years remember him fondly. But they watch in awe or dismay, depending on their political beliefs, at how he has transformed into a conservative firebrand.
They first began to see the inklings of his future political success after he graduated from Baton Rouge Magnet.
Richard Juneau, who raised a family across the street from the Jindals, was struck by his maturity when they talked one day when Jindal was visiting Baton Rouge while a Rhodes scholar.
“I was so impressed with him,” Juneau said. “He was such a good conversationalist. He was above and beyond the normal 20-year-old.”
Enoch Huang, a Baton Rouge Magnet classmate and friend, was struck by his polish and confidence when Jindal as DHH secretary spoke at Tulane, where Huang was attending medical school.
“It was a very different side of Bobby,” he said. “He was on top of everything. It was very humbling.”
Jindal has little contact today with his high school friends. Many of them last saw him when he hosted their 20th reunion at the Governor’s Mansion.
For an hour or so, his classmates pinched themselves on one of their own holding the most important job in the state. Several of them made snarky comments about how Jindal had developed a Southern accent during his political climb in Louisiana.
But the conversation stopped when he and his wife, Supriya, appeared and slowly made their way down the grand staircase. The crowd began to cheer, and classmates lined up to shake his hand and ask for a photo.
Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @TegBridges. For more coverage of the State Capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.