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Abington recalls 'brilliant' alum said in line to lead Pentagon

Long before Ashton Carter became a nuclear physicist, an Oxford professor, a Pentagon strategist, or the presumed nominee for secretary of defense, those who grew up with him in Abington recognized a spark.

Robert Miller, a childhood friend, said his father had pegged Carter early for his intelligence.
Robert Miller, a childhood friend, said his father had pegged Carter early for his intelligence.Read moreJESSICA PARKS / Staff

Long before Ashton Carter became a nuclear physicist, an Oxford professor, a Pentagon strategist, or the presumed nominee for secretary of defense, those who grew up with him in Abington recognized a spark.

"He was brilliant. I remember thinking, 'Yeah, that guy's going to be president someday,' " said Lois Odabas, who graduated with Carter in Abington High School's Class of 1972.

Robert Miller, who met Carter when both were at Highland Elementary School, recalled one time when his father took them swimming at a local park. They were about 10.

"To me, he was a regular kid," Miller said. "But I remember my dad said to my mom at the time, 'This kid is really sharp.' "

Carter, 60, is reportedly at the top of President Obama's list to replace Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who resigned last week.

Obama spokesman Josh Earnest has not confirmed the decision, but said Carter meets the criteria and "is somebody who definitely deserves and has demonstrated strong bipartisan support for his previous service in government."

A nomination could come this week.

Ashton Baldwin Carter was born in Philadelphia and raised in Abington on Wheatsheaf Lane. His late father, William S. Carter, was a Navy psychiatrist, a neurologist, and department chairman at Abington Memorial Hospital for 30 years.

The nickname "Ash" has followed him to Washington from his high school in Montgomery County, where he was honor society president, a class councilman, cross-country runner, wrestler, and lacrosse player. Even in the 1970s, when many Abington classmates had long, shaggy hair and bell bottoms, Carter was clean-cut, with short hair and collared shirts.

In an autobiographical essay posted on his Harvard faculty page, Carter said the large public high school, all of his extracurricular activities, and a few part-time jobs left him "intellectually hungry," with little time "to do the reading and research that I was craving."

At Yale, he wrote, he was "an intensely serious" student, studying the past - medieval history - and the future - physics - with no interest in what came between the two extremes.

He went to Oxford for a doctorate in theoretical physics, taught at Harvard, and served on advisory boards for weapons labs at MIT and elsewhere.

In three separate Pentagon stints since the early 1980s, he became part of the top brass, deeply involved in everything from budgets to the nuclear weapons arsenal to direct advocacy for the troops.

Byron Goldstein, a spokesman for the Abington School District, said Carter has been one of the district's most prestigious alumni. In 1989, he was inducted into the high school's Hall of Fame.

So news of Carter's potential nomination to the top of the Pentagon did not surprise Joe Grande, Carter's Honors Earth sciences teacher in eighth grade and his assistant cross-country coach at Abington.

"He's one of the kids when you have in school and you're coaching, you know he's going to do well in life," Grande said.

When Carter returned to Abington for his 40-year class reunion, Miller said, few noticed that he had pulled up in a black SUV with two men in tow.

Carter's most recent accomplishment generated buzz among his former cross-country teammates Saturday night at the Class of 1974's 40-year reunion.

"They all said, 'God, we used to run with him. Can you believe this?' " said James Gavaghan, who was Carter's head coach in cross-country and taught his 10th-grade non-Western history class.

Carter always had a smile on his face, Gavaghan said, and made wisecracks in class every once in a while. Gavaghan said Carter's career embodies the "five P's" he taught his students: purpose, pride, patience, persistence, and perspective.

Having followed Carter's career over the last few decades, Miller believes Carter has the character and backbone to make a good defense secretary.

"When they were going to do pay cuts," Miller recalled, "Ashton went on Joe Scarborough's [MSNBC] show and said he was taking the same pay cut that a soldier would, 20 percent or whatever it was."

Although Carter was never in the military, he advocated for service members' protections and resources as deputy defense secretary from 2011 to 2013, and would often visit wounded soldiers in the hospital.

His wife, Stephanie, recently posted a photo on Instagram of her "best Thanksgiving - in Afghanistan with the troops."

One serviceman, injured by a roadside bomb, wanted to be reunited with his service dog. "Ashton said, 'How much paperwork do you need to go through to make that happen?' And he made it happen," Miller said. "It just shows what kind of guy he is."

No matter his character or qualifications, Carter would be walking into one of the nation's most difficult jobs. Hagel lasted less than two years, and several leading candidates to replace him reportedly said they weren't interested.

At the top of Carter's to-do list would be strategizing against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, Russia's continued provocations in Ukraine, a nearly decadelong debate over the base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, and continued threats of deep spending cuts at the Pentagon.

Anthony Cordesman, a security strategy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Carter's experience and record make him more than qualified and able to quickly take over.

"This is one of the most critical jobs in government," said Cordesman, who acknowledged that cabinet positions, by nature, are not long-lasting. "And people remember that you served. And if you serve successfully, your influence lasts a long time."

At the Abington Township Public Library on Wednesday, Odabas, who now works as a librarian, reminisced about her onetime classmate with an older woman whose son had been friends with Carter.

"I'm very happy. It's nice to have a hometown boy" in such a position, said the woman, who did not want to give her name. She said his prospective nomination was proof that "you don't have to go to Groton," the Massachusetts boarding school, to succeed in life.

To which Odabas replied: "You just have to go to Abington, apparently."

This article contains information from the Associated Press.