Mitt Romney apologized Thursday for pranks he helped orchestrate in high school that he said "might have gone too far," including an incident in which he pinned down a fellow student and cut his hair.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee was responding to an article published a few hours earlier by The Washington Post documenting the episode with firsthand accounts from Romney's classmates at the Cranbrook Schools in Michigan.
"Back in high school, I did some dumb things, and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that," Romney said in a live radio interview on Fox News. "I participated in a lot of high jinks and pranks during high school, and some might have gone too far, and for that I apologize."
Romney's campaign hastily scheduled him to call in to the radio show from Omaha, Neb., where he was holding a campaign event, to respond to the Post's report.
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Romney said the incident involving cutting the hair of John Lauber, who some students suspected was gay, occurred "a long time ago."
"I don't remember that incident," Romney said, laughing. "I certainly don't believe that I thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s, so that was not the case."
Asked specifically about having interrupted a closeted gay student in English class, Gary Hummel, by shouting, "Atta girl!" Romney said, "I really can't remember that."
"As this person indicated, he was closeted," Romney said. "I had no idea that he was gay and can't speak to that even today. But as to the teasing or the taunts that go on in high school, that's a long time ago. For me, that's about 48 years ago. Again, if there's anything I said that is offensive to someone, I certainly am sorry for that, very deeply sorry for that."
Romney said that after marrying his high school sweetheart, Ann, and going on a Mormon mission to France, he is "a very different person."
"I'm a very different person than I was in high school, of course, but I'm glad that I learned as much as I did during those high school years," Romney said. "I'm quite a different guy now. I'm married, have five sons, five daughters-in-law, and now 18 grandchildren."
He said he hopes the campaign will focus on what he considers bigger issues: the economy, energy and labor policies, Iran's nuclear development.
"There's going to be some that want to talk about high school," Romney said. "Well, if you really think that's important, be my guest."
'He can't look like that'
Romney returned from a three-week spring break in 1965 to resume his studies as a high school senior at the prestigious Cranbrook Schools. Back on the handsome campus, studded with Tudor brick buildings and manicured fields, he spotted something he thought did not belong at a school where the boys wore ties and carried briefcases.
Lauber, a soft-spoken new student one year behind Romney, was perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality. Now he was walking around the all-boys school with bleached-blond hair that draped over one eye, and Romney wasn't having it.
"He can't look like that. That's wrong. Just look at him!" an incensed Romney told Matthew Friedemann, his close friend in the Stevens Hall dorm, according to Friedemann's recollection. Mitt, the teenage son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, kept complaining about Lauber's look, Friedemann recalled.
A few days later, Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school's collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a posse shouting about its plan to cut Lauber's hair.
Friedemann followed the teens to a nearby room, where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the floor. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with scissors.
The incident was recalled similarly by five students, who gave their accounts independently of one another. Four of them -- Friedemann, now a dentist; Phillip Maxwell, a lawyer; Thomas Buford, a retired prosecutor; and David Seed, a retired principal -- spoke on the record. Another witness asked not to be named.
The men have differing political affiliations, although they mostly lean Democratic. Buford volunteered for Barack Obama's campaign in 2008.
Seed, a registered independent, has served as a Republican county chairman in Michigan. All of them said that politics in no way colored their recollections.
"It happened very quickly, and to this day it troubles me," said Buford, the school's wrestling champion, who said he joined Romney in restraining Lauber. Buford later apologized to Lauber, who was "terrified," he said. "What a senseless, stupid, idiotic thing to do."
"It was vicious," recalled Maxwell, a childhood friend of Romney's who was in the dorm room when the incident occurred.
"He was just easy pickings," said Friedemann, then the student prefect, or student authority leader of Stevens Hall, expressing remorse about his failure to stop the incident.