A Family's Secrets Roil The Right

To Hillsdale College, a tiny private liberal-arts school in rural Michigan, George Roche III was a kind of cult figure. Tall and charismatic, the school's president had transformed Hillsdale from a third-rate party school into one of the country's most respected and well-endowed small colleges. Roche preached family values and fed his students a heavy diet of classics and morality, a combination that made him a darling of political conservatives. So Hillsdale's 1,200 students were stunned when Lissa Roche, a college employee and the wife of George Roche's namesake son, killed herself last month. Three weeks later the school president resigned the position he had held for nearly three decades. Roche claimed he was leaving the school for family and health reasons--he has diabetes--but the circumstances were far more sordid. As first reported by the National Review, hours before taking her life Lissa Roche had confronted her husband and admitted she had been having an affair for nearly two decades--with his father. Roche Sr. has denied the affair, but the revelations sent school officials scrambling for cover and conservative supporters demanding answers. Friends and colleagues were left to wonder how the family could harbor such a destructive secret.

For the Roches, Hillsdale was practically the family business. Roche's son, George IV--or "I. V." as he was called--attended the school in the '70s. There he met Lissa, an outgoing history major. They were married a year after graduation, and before long both took jobs at Hillsdale. I.V. ran the physiology lab. Lissa recruited high-profile speakers like Colin Powell and Margaret Thatcher to lecture at the school. She also spent long hours working closely with her father-in-law, helping him to write speeches and entertain visiting dignitaries. Lissa, colleagues recall, regarded herself as the First Lady of Hillsdale.

Lissa Roche's cozy relationship with her husband's father didn't go unnoticed on the close-knit campus. There were rumors that the two might be having an affair. In April, Roche divorced June, his wife of 44 years, who had recently been diagnosed with liver cancer. Lissa, I.V. and their son, George V, moved into the president's grand house, Broadlawn. She was thrilled. This fall, Roche showed up on campus introducing his new fiancee, Mary Hagan, a Kentuckian he had met at a lecture.

Lissa was distraught about her father-in-law's new love interest and being evicted as First Lady. Then, on Oct. 16, George III was rushed to the hospital after an insulin reaction, a complication of his diabetes. The next day, when Lissa and I.V. were visiting him in the hospital, she suddenly revealed the affair in front of both men. Stunned, I.V. asked his father if it was true, according to the National Review account, but his father "didn't say a word," I.V. said. "I could tell by looking at him that she was telling the truth."

Despite the crushing news, I.V. and Lissa returned home together. Later that day, Lissa asked I.V. to check in on his grandmother, who still lived at Broadlawn. Moments after he left, she took a .38-caliber handgun out of her husband's gun cabinet, walked out the back door of the house to a stone gazebo and shot herself in the head. Less than two weeks later George III left on a Hawaiian honeymoon. With his father gone, I.V. spilled his story of the affair to a college administrator. George III cut his vacation short to defend himself, but he was put on leave and resigned a few days later.

Desperate to downplay the damage, one school official suggested that Roche is "a condemned innocent man." Others quietly hinted that Lissa or I.V. had darker problems and may have made up the affair, though no one at the school would elaborate. The PR effort has infuriated some longtime Hillsdale supporters, including William Bennett--who accused the school of shading the truth and resigned from a search panel for a new president.

Bitter and estranged, the father and son now shun one another. Last week moving boxes were stacked in George III's home. Just down the street, George IV sat in seclusion, refusing to let outsiders in, seeking refuge from the campus that was once a sanctuary.