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Published: Sunday, 1/14/2001

Scandal at Hillsdale hits bookshelves

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

HILLSDALE - At first, Richard Wunsch hesitated selling a new book detailing the Hillsdale College sex scandal in his downtown bookstore.

But after some deliberations, Mr. Wunsch was convinced that people were still interested in the soap opera that jolted this community and led to the resignation of George Roche III, the charismatic leader of its conservative and private liberal-arts college.

And Mr. Wunsch was right.

Although students and staff say the events that unfolded in November, 1999, are footnotes in the school's 157-year history, local residents continue to revel in the scandal that thrust Hillsdale in the national spotlight.

“We sell one every couple of days,” Mr. Wunsch said of Roger Rapoport's Hillsdale: Greek Tragedy in America's Heartland, which was published in September.

Aimee England, a manager at the Volume I bookstore, agreed.

“I was fascinated about how many we sold for Christmas presents,” said Ms. England, whose store also sells copies of the police report detailing the investigation of the Lissa Roche's death.

“And everybody who buys it has his own theory about what happened.”


Lissa Roche was found dead Oct. 17, 1999, in a gazebo behind her Hillsdale College home.

The 41-year-old wife of the college president's son, George Roche IV, was active at Hillsdale. She had served as editor of Imprimis, the college's monthly magazine with 1 million readers.

Her death was ruled a suicide by Hillsdale police. But she left behind accusations that shocked this town and the national conservative community - allegations that led to her father's-in-law resignation.

Just a few hours prior to her death, Ms. Roche publicly confronted her father-in-law, claiming they had a 19-year affair.

Police said she went home after the confrontation, grabbed a gun from a cabinet, and shot herself in the head. Her husband later found her body. A few days later, George Roche IV told the college's board of trustees about the terrible allegations.

The news damaged the reputation of George Roche III, who was a darling of the national conservative movement.

Under his leadership, the tiny college gained national prominence for his school's refusal to accept federal money.

And over the years, he tirelessly traveled the nation, preaching to the faithful and raising $300 million in private money for the school's endowment fund.

In the wake of the scandal, the school did not take a hit in the money it received in public donations, according to figures on nonprofit tax forms filed annually with the Internal Revenue Service. The school received $30 million in donations last year.

George Roche III resigned in November, 1999, and has moved to Ouray, Colo. He could not be reached for comment.

But according to the tax documents, he received nearly $1.1 million in deferred compensation. The money - owed to him when he retired - may not be all the money he gets from the college.

Hillsdale College officials refused to comment whether Mr. Roche received additional funds after June 30, the last day dollars were recorded on the 1999-2000 IRS tax form.

His resignation left the college scurrying to regain its composure and more importantly, its national reputation.

With only his resignation letter available for explanation, Mr. Roche left the college to rebuild on its own. It was more than a year later, when he sent a letter to the college board of trustees, that he finally broke his silence.

“The charges which ended my 28 years of devoted service to the college have been given no factual substantiation for one simple and excellent reason: Those charges are not true,” he wrote in the Dec. 22 letter.

With his letter, Mr. Roche piqued curiosity in the community once again.


Ryan Oprea and Lindsay White walked through the quiet streets of Hillsdale last week anticipating the start of the new term tomorrow. Mr. Oprea, a recent Hillsdale College graduate, and Miss White, a junior studying economics, said talk on campus rarely, if ever, turns to George Roche III.

In the classroom and through the halls, the focus of Hillsdale College's students and staff continues to be education, said Mr. Oprea, 23, who graduated with degrees in economics and philosophy.

“It seems that everybody else was more interested in what happened than we were,” he said. “I just graduated last year and nothing had changed in our classrooms, nothing changed in the flavor of the school.”

The two also dismiss the idea that the scandal had anything to do with the college's drop in enrollment.

Citing increasingly difficult standards as one likely explanation, they said Hillsdale College holds high expectations from both incoming and current students.

“I think people have a hard time meeting the standards,” said Miss White, 20, a native of Toledo. “I know about 10 people personally who didn't come back because they didn't have the grades.”

And the mood on campus has been better than ever, she said. The college has moved on with a new president and professors have fallen back into their academic world.

Larry Arnn was sworn in as the school's 12th president and has been a constant presence among students.

Mr. Arnn, founder and director of the Claremont Institute for Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy in California, brought the energy and academic background that college officials and watchdogs believed bring back prominence to the school.

Although he successfully avoids the media spotlight, Mr. Arnn has made himself accessible to the college community, students say.

But despite claims by Hillsdale College officials that the Roche family saga is over, people in this community of 8,200 people - and outside Hillsdale - are still talking about it.


The Volume I bookstore houses an eclectic compilation of used paperbacks and rare hardcover books. Snuggled in the middle of North Broad Street in downtown Hillsdale, the bookstore provides reading materials to everyone from local college students to the occasional passer-by.

And one of the store's best-sellers has been the 79-page report detailing the Hillsdale Police investigation of Lissa Roche's death. The store sells the report for $10.

“A lot of people don't feel comfortable getting the report from the police station because they ask you to fill out a request form,” Ms. England said. “We've had members from the college buy them, students, we've even had three police officers come over here and buy them. People want to see the information but they don't want to be identified.''

Most of the interest comes from those with Hillsdale ties, admits Mr. Wunsch.

But people from all over the country have requested the book.

And most of his customers believe there is more to the story. The likelihood of more information being released, however, is slim, Ms. England said.

“The college people want to go on with a new era and move forward,” she said. “The community members have a lot of questions and the rumors are out there.”



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