“Patriotism is not a short and frenzied burst of emotion but the long and studied dedication of a lifetime.”
The Boy From Winsted
It’s 1938, and Rose Nader is taking her four young children for a visit back to the family’s homeland of Lebanon. They’re in line to meet an archbishop of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the city of Zahle. But when it’s 4-year-old Ralph’s turn to kiss the archbishop’s ring, he refuses. “I don’t have to kiss your ring—I’m an American!” he announces. The unruffled archbishop looks down, pats Ralph’s short black hair, and says, “A lot of ideas are going to come from this boy’s head.”
Ralph Nader grew up in Winsted, Connecticut, a Capraesque town of 10,000 nestled 26 miles northwest of Hartford in the Berkshires. His father, who arrived in the United States at age 19 with $20 in his pocket, saved enough to buy a two-story, 10-room white clapboard house, as well as a building in town that became the Highland Arms, the Nader family restaurant, where all four of his children worked.
Nathra Nader served food with a side of civics, as the restaurant became a sort of town square where his views were as strong as the coffee. “When I went by the Statue of Liberty,” he told one Nader biographer, “I took it seriously.” Early on, he and Rose spotted unusual things about their son. When Ralph came home late from school around age 8, Rose asked him where he’d been. “In court,” Ralph replied. “I like to listen to the arguments.” At 14, he was carrying home armfuls of the Congressional Record, which he read from start to finish. “You have a very good storage space,” Rose told him, touching his forehead. “You should fill it up and take it out when you need it.”
Ralph was a newspaper boy for the Winsted Register Citizen, played sandlot ball for hours on end with, among others, classmate David Halberstam, read biographies about turn-of-the-century muckrakers, and especially enjoyed working the cash register at the restaurant, where he could pick the brains of customers.
Tall and thin, with an angular face and deep-set eyes, the shy student left Winsted for Princeton in 1951. Ralph was attracted by the university’s beautiful open-stack library, where he read an average of one book a day outside of his required course work. Once, he escorted Norman Thomas (Princeton, 1905) back from a lecture. “What was your greatest achievement?” Ralph asked of the famous socialist and six-time presidential candidate. “Having the Democrats steal my agenda,” Thomas replied.