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Rick Santorum's Frat Brothers Perplexed By Claims Of Cultural Oppression

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Rick Santorum (far right) with his fraternity in their 1980 yearbook photo.
Rick Santorum (far right) with his fraternity in their 1980 yearbook photo.

David Vondercrone doesn't remember sharing his fraternity house with a besieged conservative student. He remembers his former Penn State frat brother -- and current GOP presidential contender -- Rick Santorum as a regular poker player.

"I played a lot of basketball with him and a lot of poker with him," Vondercrone tells The Huffington Post.

Long before he was a leading presidential candidate who had assumed the identity of a culture warrior, Santorum was just another fraternity brother at Tau Epsilon Phi. "He wasn't so outspoken," Vondercrone says. "It seems to be his identity in the race right now. I didn't think of him as that way ... We talked about sports, our classes."

He says Santorum regularly attended the house's Monday night "low-stakes" poker games that included watching "Monday Night Football." He remembers Santorum smoking cigars. And drinking beer. Santorum was an "all-year" sports fan, Vondercone recalls. He was a Pittsburgh fan whether it was the Pirates or the Steelers.

Sometimes, the fraternity had parties at the house -- 10 or so a year, "full scale with a band," Vondercrone says. Santorum took his turn behind the fraternity's bar and served drinks. He didn't necessarily stand out as either a wall flower or an expert dancer. "I don't remember him having a long-term girlfriend," Vondercrone says. "He was comfortable with women."

The crowd may not have parted when he walked in, but he held his own.

The recollections of Santorum’s fellow fraternity members don’t fit nicely with the image that the former Pennsylvania senator has crafted on the campaign trail. But that may be because the image he has crafted isn’t one strongly shaped by real-life experiences. Santorum is a cultural conservative who didn't spend his formative years in bible study. He’s a fiscal conservative who never served as a budget-conscious, counter-culture battling governor. Currently, he’s been a vocal critic of the so-called liberal, intellectual elite, despite earning a college degree from Penn State, an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh and a law degree from Dickinson School of Law.

On the trail this past week, Santorum went first person with a near memoir-ready pitch about the suffering he endured as a Republican at a land-grant university set in conservative farm country. The '60s had long ended. Political-correctness had yet to become a thing. But to this GOP presidential hopeful, Penn State University, with its old-fashioned football coach, quaint main street and famous ice cream shop, was his Altamont.

On ABC's Sunday morning show "This Week," Santorum defended his recent attack on President Obama in which he called him a "snob" for wanting all Americans to get a college education. Colleges are little more than liberal "indoctrination mills," he said, explaining why Obama would want your child brainwashed in one. This wasn't just the empty rhetoric of an old culture warrior, he offered.

"I’ve gone through it," Santorum explained. "I went through it at Penn State. You talk to most kids who go to college who are conservatives, and you are singled out, you are ridiculed, you are -- I can tell you personally, I know that, you know, we -- I went through a process where I was docked for my conservative views. ”

It's a tale unfamiliar to his fellow fraternity brothers in Tau Epsilon Phi who shared a house with Santorum and joined him for a yearbook photo during his senior year in 1980. In that picture, he looks far from the sweater-vested cultural warrior he has become. He has bushy hair, and a full beard, jeans and sneakers. A pipe is sticking out of his mouth.

HuffPost interviewed four of Santorum's fraternity brothers, and none recalled any oppression for hot-button views, nor for that matter heated discussions on topics like abortion. The house was neither full of jocks nor preppies. They say he simply fit in.

"He was a good guy and it was a very conservative fraternity,” said fellow brother Randy Fardelmann.

Occasionally, Santorum would wax approvingly on Ronald Reagan's ideas on foreign policy and keeping government out of business. "It wasn't radical thought," Vondercrone says. Reagan was running for president against incumbent President Jimmy Carter during Santorum's final year in undergrad.

HuffPost previously reported that Santorum was a self-identified moderate during his college years, admitting to being pro-choice prior to becoming a politician. That was the case for many Pennsylvania and national Republicans, however, before the party began expunging its moderate wing. Within that ideological landscape, HuffPost also reported that Santorum excelled during his time at Penn State -- rebooting a campus Republican group and interning for then-state Sen. J. Doyle Corman, whom he eventually worked for as the chief of staff.

Santorum was noticed for his ambition.

"I think he was a lot more focused than most of us were," Bruce Elliehausen, 52, says. "I admired him. For a college kid, I thought he was more focused than anybody else I knew."

Tom Fegley saw the same drive. "Mostly what I remember is he seemed to be very committed to what he was doing and seemed to have this path he was on," Fegley explains, adding that he remembers Santorum as a guy who "definitely seemed to have a plan in mind."

Early this week,The New Republic interviewed Bob O'Connor, one of Santorum's old political science professors who taught Santorum in four different classes. O'Connor objected to Santorum's persecution charge. "He really has a rich fantasy life," O'Connor told TNR in an email. "PSU in the 1970s was not exactly Berkeley. I resent this sort of accusation [that] I and my colleagues graded students on the basis of their political attitudes. Ridiculous.”

Santorum's fraternity brothers were fairly shocked by their friend's assertions.

Was there any kind of oppression at the frat house? "Not the group that I hung with," Elliehausen says.

"I wasn't aware of any oppression of any sort," Vondercrone says. "He seemed like a happy guy."

Santorum's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

HuffPost readers: Did you know Rick Santorum in college? Were you a member of his fraternity? We'd love to hear from you. Tell us your stories by emailing jason.cherkis@huffingtonpost.com. Please include your phone number if you're willing to do an interview.

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article stated that Rick Santorum earned a law degree from Dickinson School of Law at Penn State. Dickinson School of Law became part of Penn State after Santorum received his degree.

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