Fifty years after graduating from Baker High School and going off to become a national political power, Newt Gingrich still has a soft spot for “the city that introduced me to Georgia.”
“It’s a little emotional to come back to Columbus in this kind of a setting,” the Republican presidential hopeful said Friday night at a rally at the Columbus Airport. “I think back to when we first arrived here from Germany, and going to the last part of my junior year and my senior year at Baker.
“The first political campaign I really worked on was that summer of 1960,” he added.
Gingrich, who was campaigning in Georgia last week in preparation for the Super Tuesday primary, spoke to the Ledger-Enquirer on Wednesday at the state Capitol and again during a campaign stop Friday about his connections to Columbus.
Gingrich’s father, Robert, was career Infantry, spending 27 years in the service and rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He brought his family to Fort Benning and Columbus in 1960 and the young Gingrich enrolled in Baker as a junior.
Gingrich said he didn’t see himself as a potential political candidate in those days, but he did see himself involved in the process.
“I saw myself being involved in national policy,” he said. “But I thought I’d end up as more of an adviser or planner.”
Dr. Katrina Yielding did see a budding politician in the young Gingrich. Yielding taught at Baker and had Gingrich in her Accelerated Government class. Yielding recalls Gingrich as “an insatiable reader” who was deeply interested in the Kennedy-Nixon presidential campaign.
“I figured he would enter politics. He was so interested in it,” she said. “I was impressed then with his knowledge of history, and I still am. If there’s a problem anywhere in the world, he doesn’t have to go look it up. He can tell you the history of the region, wherever it is.”
Yielding, who attended Friday’s airport rally and was introduced to the crowd by Gingrich, said the accelerated class he was in was a particularly good one, “one I’ll always remember.”
“He referred to me as his teacher (at the rally),” she said. “But I learned as much from that class as they did from me. That’s the approach I took to teaching: ‘We’re going to learn together.’ We had some great political discussions.”
Yielding said she and Gingrich still talk occasionally, but she doesn’t offer advice.
“I don’t think he needs any advice,” she said.
After graduating from Baker, Gingrich would go to Emory University, but not before a less auspicious first step toward higher education.
“I went to my first quarter of college to Columbus College at the Archer Hosiery Mill,” he said, drawing laughter from the airport crowd. “That was the beginning of a long and confused educational career.”
That career included a bachelor’s degree in history from Emory, then a master’s and doctorate in early European history from Tulane. After graduating, he was hired as an assistant professor of history at West Georgia College in Carrollton.
Another of Gingrich’s old Columbus connections comes from that era, when Gingrich was teaching at West Georgia. He and his first wife, Jackie, who was from Columbus, would come to Columbus on weekends to visit family.
His interest in politics and Republican politics in particular led to a friendship with former Columbus Mayor Bob Hydrick, who, along with former Mayor J.R. Allen, were instrumental in what they called the “Republican Renaissance” of that era.
Gingrich would call him and talk about political strategy, and they still stay in touch, Hydrick said.
“I talk to him occasionally. He’ll call me or I’ll call him to see how things are going,” Hydrick said, then laughed. “He’s just about the only person who still calls me Mayor Hydrick and I still call him Mr. Speaker.”
Hydrick said there is something of a family connection between the two, also. One of Gingrich’s grandsons is in school near Atlanta where Hydrick’s daughter teaches. Without publicity or fanfare, Hydrick said, Gingrich flew down from Washington to speak to his grandson’s class.
“She was impressed that he would fly down just to speak to the class,” Hydrick said. “She said he spoke to them for about 45 minutes, and said it was the best history lesson those kids will ever have.”
Gingrich said he still gets back to Columbus occasionally, and is impressed with the changes he’s seen. He spoke to a health care conference at the Trade Center in 2007 and again at the Blanchard Leadership Forum two years ago.
“You go through downtown Columbus, it’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s amazing over the years to see how the city has changed.”
But his visit Friday was political, of course, seeking support in the Super Tuesday primary.
Though leading Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in Georgia, Gingrich’s numbers aren’t as good nationally. Romney has a commanding lead in delegates with 173 to Santorum’s 87 and Gingrich’s 33. A candidate needs 1,144 delegates for the GOP nomination, and Gingrich said he is confident he can overcome the early deficit.
Gingrich’s wife, Callista, vowed to the 200-plus supporters at the airport Friday that they would be back in town one day soon, campaigning for the presidency instead of a nomination.
“Our only opponent is Barack Obama,” she said. “And we are committed to removing him from the White House.”