Backstory: High school dropout to Rhodes scholar - mission possible

On the adventurous path to the top of his military class, brawn was the entry ticket, but brains kept him there.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Among this year's 32 winners of the famously prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, only one can honestly say that having biceps like baseballs played a critical role.

Meet Nicholas Schmitz, a high school dropout who enlisted in the Marines at 17 and found his way through community college night classes to the US Naval Academy, where he's No. 1 in his class.

For six years without so much as two weeks off, he's wowed superiors as a quick study with loads of technical aptitude and a relentless work ethic. But it was his performance on the chin-up bars during a physical exam in 2000 that helped convince recruiters to admit him without a diploma.

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"They required four chin-ups," says his proud father, Joe Schmitz, in an interview at the family home here.A staff sergeant suggested the deal was all but done when Nick "cranked out 26 perfect chin-ups, looked down, and said, 'Is that enough?' "

"That," says Joe Schmitz, "was definitely a performance waiver."

Nick Schmitz's unorthodox journey from boot camp to Oxford University, where he'll spend the next two years studying political theory on a full ride from the Rhodes Trust, might suggest a rise from humble origins. But he came from privilege - following an adventurous streak off the beaten path, largely to show himself what he could do.

"He's Huck Finn," says Bill Mohan, father of Schmitz's close high school friend Will Mohan. "You can tell from his smile that he's up for anything.... He's a rare Rhodes scholar. I'd guarantee most of them have taken very predictable courses in life, but Nick's is about as unpredictable as it gets."

Even Schmitz seems a little surprised by how it all worked out: "I wouldn't recommend it to my little brothers to do it this way. But for me, it was the right thing."

Others weren't so sure it would be. Mr. Mohan recalls "a certain recklessness about it" when Nick suddenly bolted from high school without a plan. He feared Will might also conclude that "it's okay to fly by the seat of your pants."

Yet, from his early days, Schmitz liked to push the envelope further than his peers. When biking as a kid, he was constantly taking jumps, riding half-pipes, or doing tricks on his BMX, according to lifelong pal Michael Pomponi. Thrill-seeking served him well in pole vaulting, competitive diving, and on the Naval Academy's gymnastics team.

"He was always the smartest and always the strongest," Mr. Pomponi remembers. "He's been out-performing people his whole life.... It was kind of annoying."

At the Schmitz home, a columned brick Georgian, high achievement was always expected. Joe Schmitz, a successful Washington attorney, was a standout high school footballer and Navy captain who served as Department of Defense Inspector General from April 2002 until last September. He and his wife, Mollie, have sent all eight children to Roman Catholic schools with hopes they'd excel in academics and sports, and go on to the likes of Georgetown University and Boston College. The kids haven't disappointed.

For a time, Nick Schmitz traveled the predetermined track. He enrolled at Georgetown Preparatory School, a nearby Jesuit school for boys where his father, uncle, and two older brothers earned reputations as leaders.

The Rev. Aloysius Galvin, S.J., Schmitz's pre- calculus teacher there, remembers that "His questions were always pushing ahead. It was as if he had an instinct for where we were going to go with the topic."

But at 16, Schmitz preferred listening to Beastie Boys CDs in the church parking lot to sitting at a school desk in a jacket and tie. Restless, he turned prankster. He remembers once tying a Christmas tree to a classroom doorknob with a string and howling when the teacher entered, sending tree and ornaments tumbling. He spent many hours in J.U.G. - Judgment Under God - which entailed washing dishes or other work-as-penalty. His grades slipped, too, Rev. Galvin recalls. Frustrated, school administrators asked Schmitz to leave.

After less than a year at a public high school, Schmitz was ready to do what he'd expected he'd do since age 7: enter the military like his dad.

"I was very worried," says Mollie Schmitz. "He's a very bright young man.... He had everything, and then to quit school and join the Marine Corps, I thought, 'Oh, my gosh.' I was really very concerned that [Nick was] heading on the wrong path" and wouldn't get a college education.

Despite much hand-wringing around him, Schmitz set off for boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. at 17. When he returned, wearing his uniform to midnight mass, friends and family perceived a change.

"We weren't the enemy anymore," his mother remembers.

And, says Pomponi, "He didn't talk anymore about stupid stuff [like rap albums]. He talked less - and it was about serious topics."

Schmitz recalls: "I felt like, 'I just did 13 weeks of Marine Corps boot camp. I could probably do more.' "

At last he was, in a way, outdoing his two accomplished older brothers. He was earning hardwon respect and special recognition from his naval officer father and paternal grandfather, a retired marine. And at 17, Schmitz was charting his own life course.

"It wasn't something somebody else was forcing me to do or expecting me to do," recounts Schmitz. "It was where I wanted to be. It was where I had decided to be and what I wanted to do."

In the Marines, he trained to manage computer networks and earned a merit-based promotion to the rank of corporal, rare for an 18-year-old. After acing his technical training, he sought additional intellectual challenges, first with a night course in economics and then by applying to the Naval Academy Preparatory School (NAPS).

Once again, he hit a wall without a diploma. And again, the biceps helped. He scored above the 90th percentile in physical testing, and NAPS admitted him contingent on a pledge that he get his Graduate Equivalency Diploma, which he did.

At the Naval Academy, where he double majors in economics and political science and minors in Japanese, Schmitz has made A's in all but one course, macroeconomics. His superiors like his style - they put him in charge of 2,100 midshipmen as a regimental commander.

When a current classmate, Midshipman Zachary Goldstein, hears of Schmitz's youthful turmoil, he shakes his head: "It's kind of surprising ... but seeing how he succeeds now, at this academy, I can see how a normal high school routine would have been kind of dull for him."

Schmitz appears to want every phase of his life to offer two things: A ruthless challenge and a role in an important cause. High school left him feeling unsatisfied in a way military service never does.

"Just look at the newspaper," Schmitz says. With the military's help "we just had elections [in Iraq] for the first time. I think that's doing something meaningful with your life."

Schmitz says he isn't sure where his career will lead, but he does imagine using his studies in democratic theory in a theater of war one day as an officer with a democracy-spreading mission.

To that end, or perhaps another, Schmitz will enroll at Oxford this year as a second lieutenant in the Marines. But even there, in some of academe's most hallowed halls, he intends to keep his studies in perspective.

"I love to learn, don't get me wrong," he says. "But there's more that goes into forming a person than just books."

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