OXFORD, Ohio — Growing up quickly after his father's unexpected death, a young Paul Ryan found direction for his life at Ohio's Miami University. His interest in politics and economics – Republican and conservative – thrived during his four years on the small-town campus.
Thought of as a smart and serious student but also friendly and outgoing, Ryan was part of the college's influential Greek community as a Delta Tau Delta. He ventured into elective politics as a low-level volunteer for the congressional campaign of state legislator John Boehner, now the U.S. House speaker.
The young Ryan, Class of 1992, honed a conservative bent with the help of an enthusiastic professor who served as mentor and sounding board in hours-long sessions on politics. He also studied economic thinkers such as Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and others who believed in individuals and market forces over government solutions.
"The core beliefs were already there," Miami professor Rich Hart said Tuesday of his former pupil. "I think he was just honing them with his studies, strengthening his belief in empowering individuals. ... It all kind of gravitated back to what the role of government was in society."
Ryan received a spirited welcome at Miami's campus in Oxford, about 40 miles north of Cincinnati, when he returned Wednesday evening to lead a political rally.
In 1988, when Ryan was a freshman, Miami was growing in popularity as a leading academic-bang-for-the-buck public university dubbed by one author as among "The Public Ivys."
Lisa Rippe, from Ryan's Janesville, Wis., hometown and high school, said Ryan had asked her how she liked Miami; she gave him positive reviews, and he soon was part of her carpool for the six- to seven-hour drive to southwest Ohio.
The liberal arts school of 14,000 students prided itself on its teachers and the kind of personal availability that Ryan found with Hart, who Ryan has said challenged him and set him on "a vision quest" to improve the nation's economics.
Hart had Ryan, an economics/political science double major, in a junior-level macroeconomics class designed to be a "weeder" – loaded with analytics and math, it wasn't meant to help grade-point averages.
Ryan had little trouble mastering the work, Hart said, and he stood out with an intellectual curiosity that brought him frequently to Hart's office to talk things out. They dissected what they saw as flaws in Keynesian economics and government approaches, and traded thoughts on writings such F.A. Hayek's 1944 warning against state control, "The Road to Serfdom," and Rand's "Atlas Shrugged," about creative and productive individuals rebelling against increasing government control and taxation.
Hart doesn't remember Ryan ever discussing plans to run for office, but he said he wasn't surprised when Ryan asked for a recommendation for an internship in the office of Sen. Bob Kasten, R-Wis., which Ryan landed, or when Ryan went to work after college for New York Rep. Jack Kemp. Hart considered Kemp, with his optimism and font of conservative ideas, a natural political mentor for Ryan.
Ryan had joined the College Republicans and took on tasks such as putting up yard signs and knocking on doors for Boehner, who would win election in Republican-dominated Butler County in 1990 to the seat he still holds.
Miami's political connections go back to President Benjamin Harrison, Class of 1852. Vice President George H.W. Bush campaigned on the campus in 1988, Ryan's freshman year, and the campus was among the settings for George Clooney's 2011 presidential politics thriller "The Ides of March."
Ryan stayed in the Anderson Hall dormitory his freshman year, then moved to the Delta Tau Delta house. Several Greek houses were founded at Miami, and about a third of its undergraduates are in fraternities or sororities.
A younger fraternity brother recalls Ryan participating in fraternity parties, but not to excess.
"He was a pretty conservative guy, and with a very good sense of humor," said Michael Loisel. "He liked to engage in conversation, and with a little more depth than the `Where did you go last night?' and `How much did you drink?'"
Loisel, now an assistant prosecutor in Lucas County, Ohio, remembers Ryan as not engaging in the heavy-handed hazing of pledges. "He was one of the guys you could talk to. He wouldn't belittle you," Loisel said.
By his senior year, Ryan was obviously very popular, said Tom Hall, an economics professor who had him in a class on business cycles.
"There's always some senioritis in the last semester, but he was glad to be there. He had a good attitude about learning," Hall said. "His fellow students liked him a lot. That came across. ... When you are a teacher, you can tell who the other students like."
Hall added, "I just remember thinking this guy would do well in whatever he does."
Ryan was his alma mater's commencement speaker three years ago. He reflected then upon the importance of his time amid Miami's red-brick Georgian buildings after his father's death from a heart attack in 1986.
"I came to Oxford after a very difficult high school experience in which I lost my father," Ryan said. "It was here at Miami where I was able to find myself. I found a sense of direction, and a sense of identity."
Associated Press writers Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., and Todd Richmond in Janesville, Wis., contributed to this report.
Contact Dan Sewell at http://www.twitter.com/dansewell