After the Harvard Law Review's annual banquet in 1991, Susan Higgins and her friends walked out of Boston's stately Harvard Club, still mesmerized by the speech of the journal's 29-year-old president.
This guy, they said, could be president of the United States someday.
And next week, he will.
Higgins, now a homemaker inb Charlotte, N.C., plans to join the throngs in Washington for Barack Obama's inauguration. She worked for him as the law review's editorial assistant.
“It's just kind of surreal,” says the 45-year-old mother of two, “thinking that somebody you worked for directly becomes president.”
Higgins is one of a handful of Obama's former colleagues and fellow students in North Carolina. They recall the incoming president as a boss, classmate or scrappy rival in pick-up basketball games. They knew him as self-assured, unruffled and able to command respect from fractious peers. Many see the same traits now.
Obama's 1990 election as law review president – he beat 18 others – brought his first national exposure. He was the first African American to head the country's most prestigious legal journal. Interview requests poured in the next day from across the country.
“The phone was just ringing off the hook,” recalls Higgins, who was one of three full-time staffers at a magazine run by students.
After a marathon election that started at 8:30 a.m. and went into the wee hours of the next morning, the normally workaholic Obama dragged into the office after lunch.
“Where have you been all day?” Higgins joked.
On a law review where egos and ambitions soared as high as the Greek columns outside, Higgins was surprised that Obama would even run.
“Most of the people (run) so they can get great clerkships on the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court,” she says. “But he wasn't interested in a clerkship because he was going back to Chicago to do community work.”
Some classmates were less surprised.
“To me it was almost obvious he would be president of the law review,” says Jennifer Collins, who now teaches law at Wake Forest. “He just had this ability to bring people together and inspire people, which was important because it was a contentious time in Harvard Law School's history.”
Ideological battles raged at the law school. Students clashed over faculty diversity and political correctness. Some even booed and hissed one another in class.
Obama, though liberal, was elected with help from conservatives. He prompted criticism from more liberal classmates by putting conservatives in key editorial positions. Some of his toughest critics were black students who complained that he didn't appoint more African Americans to top posts.
“That was the first time I had to deal with something that I suspect I'll have to deal with in the future, which is balancing a broader constituency with the specific expectations of being an African American in a position of influence,” he would later tell biographer David Mendell. “As for the criticism, I'm not sure there was anything all that surprising about that.”
The controversy mirrors the backlash from liberals today who fault some of his early appointments as well as his choice of evangelical pastor Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation.
“He struck me as moderate in the context of campus politics,” says classmate Adam Charnes, a Republican who would work in the Bush Justice Department and now practices in Winston-Salem. “His cabinet appointments are consistent with the Barack that I knew, someone who doesn't take a hard and fast ideological position on things.”
So argumentative were students that Charnes, a senior law review editor, recalls a heated discussion one morning over whether it was elitist to bring editors bagels and muffins.
Higgins recalls Obama walking in during another argument.
He summoned one editor to a meeting and began climbing the stairs to his cramped second-floor office. The editor made no move to follow and kept arguing. Obama paused.
“Upstairs, now,” he said firmly. He kept walking. The editor sheepishly followed.
Obama rarely raised his voice.
“In law school and on law review, most people like to talk a lot and exercise their mouths more than their ears,” Charnes says. “And Barack was just the opposite. He was very judicious in expressing his opinions and views.”
Kenny Smith, a year ahead of Obama, joined him for pick-up basketball games on Fridays in the law school gym. Though the games were physical, Obama was unflappable. Smith says it was a quality that helped him get along with students of all stripes.
“He was sort of a bridge person for various camps because the law school was very, very divided,” recalls Smith, now 43 and an assistant U.S. Attorney in Charlotte. “He seemed to have almost an ‘old soul' … He just had a practical wisdom and always seemed grounded and comfortable in his own skin.”
After a game, they sometimes stopped for pizza and talked about their futures. While others foresaw lucrative careers, Obama, who'd come to Harvard after three years as a community organizer, wanted to return to Chicago.
“A lot of people, quite frankly, thought he was crazy,” says Smith. “For him to take the more principled approach rather than the pragmatic approach was remarkable.”
Spurning other offers, Obama went back to his adopted hometown and led a voter registration drive before going to work for a firm specializing in civil rights and discrimination cases. His long-term goal, he told friends, was to be mayor of Chicago.
Higgins' family moved to Charlotte in 2002. Five years later she introduced Obama at a City Club fundraiser, the first time she'd seen him since Harvard. She subsequently knocked on doors in South Carolina, hosted house parties and made calls to voters. Obama won the S.C primary and carried Mecklenburg County in November.
The day before the election, she was at Obama's Elizabeth Avenue headquarters when the candidate dropped in to thank volunteers. When Obama saw her, he gave her a hug.
“I'm working hard for you,” she told him.
“This is our second time around,” he replied.