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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

On the campaign trail, when Mitt Romney attacks President Obama, he sometimes uses this line:

MITT ROMNEY: We have a president who I think is a nice guy, but he spent too much time at Harvard, perhaps.

CORNISH: Well, 20 years before Barack Obama graduated from the Harvard's law school, Romney himself earned a joint degree from its law school and business school. In our series Parallel Lives, we're looking at experiences the two men have shared.

Tomorrow, on MORNING EDITION, NPR's Ari Shapiro will report on Mr. Obama's time at Harvard. But first, Mitt Romney's Ivy League story.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In 1971, first-year Harvard law students were seated alphabetically. That's how Garret Rasmussen found himself next to Mitt Romney. They were assigned to work on a project together.

GARRET RASMUSSEN: It involved housing. I remember that 'cause I remember that he wanted - and I think did call his father, who was secretary of Housing at the time. And I was surprised that he did that. I mean - and did it, you know, without the slightest hesitation.

SHAPIRO: Rasmussen says it wasn't cheating or anything. Romney wanted to do the best job he could on the project, and his father had data that Romney thought would be useful. That establishment frame of mind set Romney apart at Harvard Law School in 1971.

It was a tumultuous time. Students were protesting the Vietnam War, walking around campus with long hair, often wearing Army fatigues - but never Romney.

RASMUSSEN: He was almost - sort of like a Boy Scout thrown into the middle of a late Vietnam War campus. So, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Romney was older than the typical law student. After college, he did Mormon missionary work in France. He was married with a son, and lived off-campus in the suburbs. So he came off as a necktie amid the tie-dye. That's how classmate Howard Brownstein remembers him, too.

HOWARD BROWNSTEIN: He was living a life that almost seemed like a throwback to what, you know, the '60s and '70s counterculture had rebelled against. Not that there was anything wrong with it. It just seemed like more of a '50s lifestyle.

SHAPIRO: Romney's Mormon faith also separated him from his law school cohort. At a campus full of coffee, booze and cigarettes, he didn't consume any of them. Friends say he tried using humor to close the gap.

One time, Brownstein bummed a cigarette off somebody - and started to smoke it next to Romney.

BROWNSTEIN: And he kind of made a little cough, and it was kind of a joke. And that was - I thought typified, you know, that he had a sense of humor. He wasn't trying to, you know, beat the world over the head with how he lived.

SHAPIRO: For all his distance from the broader Harvard community, friends remember his devotion to people on an individual level. When Mark Mazo started law school, he wanted the smartest guy in the room for his five-person study group - and that was Romney.

One night, Mitt and his wife, Ann, invited Mazo and his future wife to dinner. The Romneys served pork chops; Mazo's fiancee didn't eat pork.

MARK MAZO: Mitt was seriously embarrassed by that, at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MAZO: And it affected him more than it affected us, and we told him that then.

SHAPIRO: Forty years later, Mazo showed up at a Romney fundraiser near Washington, D.C. They hadn't seen each other in ages, so Mazo re-introduced himself. But he didn't need to. Romney asked about Mazo's wife by name and then said, you came to my house for dinner. I remember what we ate.

MAZO: He said, we ate pork chops. And then he sort of hit himself on the side of the head like, duh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Just across the river from the law school, the business school was a world away, culturally. Professor Detlev Vagts remembers one day, the Harvard campus erupted in protests - and the business school closed the roads to the school. Vagts, who ran the joint law and business school degree program for almost 50 years, says the business side was a better fit for Romney.

DETLEY VAGTS: He had a very strong business school record and a good, but not outstanding, law school record.

SHAPIRO: And was that a reflection of his interests?

VAGTS: I think so. I think if he had given himself, heart and soul, to the law side, he certainly would have done somewhat better.

SHAPIRO: Only about a dozen students each year enrolled in the joint program. It was expensive, and took a long time. Even in an environment where everyone worked doggedly, Romney's work ethic stood out.

Professor Colin Blaydon taught Romney's first-year finance course. Blaydon doesn't remember every student in an 80-person class that he taught 40 years ago. But he remembers Romney, and not just for his analytical mind.

COLIN BLAYDON: Well, one day I looked around and sitting in the back row, which is known as the sky deck, I saw a face I recognized. And it was George Romney, his father. He was a man I recognized and admired - and I knew he hadn't come there to listen to me.

SHAPIRO: Just as at the law school, Romney remains loyal to his business school friends all these decades later. Howard Serkin recalls a study group reunion. Romney had to fly from Utah to Greece, for a meeting of the Olympic Committee. He added a layover in Boston.

HOWARD SIRKIN: So he flies into Boston; spends about three hours with us; gets in the cab; flies all night to Athens, Greece. And he didn't have to do that, but he wanted to do it.

SHAPIRO: Romney's classmates and professors don't recall him expressing an interest in following his father into politics. They say he worked doggedly to succeed in business - and he did. Only then did he begin his second act, on the political stage.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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