KEMP SUCCESS BEGAN AT OXY.
In the late afternoons, when the sun has begun to fade slowly in the distance, the campus at Occidental College looks like something from a postcard. Students stroll along narrow walkways or sit on patches of grass beneath old eucalyptus trees, and there is a sense of serenity in the air. It feels like some idyllic college setting in the East, not a school located a few blocks from urban sprawl.
Surely, this is how Occidental must have looked in the fall of 1956, when Jack Kemp was the big man on campus. He wore a crew cut and drove a sports car, and on Saturdays he threw touchdown passes for the Tigers' football team. And now? Now he is Bob Dole's running mate, the Republicans' nominee for vice president.
To say his former teammates and classmates are surprised by Kemp's political success borders on understatement. He was no standout in the classroom, but he was - and still is, say his close friends - a highly focused, highly motivated person.
``I knew he was going to do great things in life,'' said Ron Botchan, a friend and former teammate, ``I just didn't know what they'd be.''
They turned out to be politics, although most sports fans know Kemp, 61, as a quarterback who won two American Football League championships with the Buffalo Bills. But before that, he was a talented quarterback at Division III Occidental, a kid who told all his friends he'd play professionally one day - and then did. And if there was a hint that politics would become his passion, no one saw it at the time.
``He was mostly involved with his fraternity and athletics,'' said Nancy Hause, a former classmate. ``He didn't run for politics or any offices that I remember, and that's why a lot of us who knew him are just amazed at where he is now - because he didn't show any of that.''
What Kemp did show was a gift for the game. Although Oxy, as everyone calls it, was just 6-2 and 3-6 in his two seasons as a starter, Kemp was named Little All-America one year and threw for more than 1,100 yards as a senior. The school newspaper called him ``a fine field general and a good thrower'' and said he possessed a ``magic arm.''
But his arm wasn't good enough to get Kemp, who graduated from Fairfax High, to a major university. Instead, he wound up at Oxy, where no athletic scholarships are awarded.
``I wasn't big enough to go to USC or UCLA,'' he told Esquire magazine in 1978. ``I was 5-feet-10, 175 pounds. They weren't that interested. But I was going to play football. I mean, I was going to play pro football.''
In the days of the two-way player, Kemp was also a defensive back, kicker and punter. In track, he threw the javelin and at one time held the school record.
``He never gave up,'' said Mike Quint, a running back at Oxy and now an insurance broker in Laguna Niguel. ``The thing about Kemp is that he's very tenacious. I remember a game we played against Pomona. We were losing big, and Jack just wouldn't give up. He threw me a touchdown pass, and we ended up scoring three times. When he kicked the last extra point, he finally said, `I guess we won.' But he was so near-sighted, he couldn't see the scoreboard. We hadn't won the game.''
One of Kemp's closest friends on the team was Jim Mora, now the New Orleans Saints' coach. They were members of the same fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega, where the best parties were thrown - although Botchan said, ``We were the square bunch. On Friday nights, we'd usually go get haircuts.''
But Kemp wasn't known for long nights in the college library. As he told an interviewer once, ``I just got an education by osmosis.'' His football coach at Oxy, Roy Dennis, once wrote that Kemp had a ``lackluster academic career.'' But friends say he was a keen reader and thinker.
``When he got focused, he could do anything,'' Quint said. ``He was just focused on football.''
Mora has said of Kemp, ``He was a smart guy, (but) like a lot of us, at that time he wasn't as academically conscientious.''
Advanced in glad-handing
What Kemp may have lacked in study habits, though, he made up for in charm. Forty years later, the recollections are of a young man who dressed well, smiled frequently and seemed to know everyone on campus. Just like a politician.
``As a person, he was very pleasant, spoke well and carried himself with dignity,'' said Keith Beebe, who was Kemp's Biblical Literature professor and presided at the wedding of Kemp and his wife, Joanne, in 1958. ``He always stood upright. He wore a shirt and pants to class, not this droopy stuff that goes on now.''
Said Hause, who is the coordinator of career services at Oxy: ``He was open and warm, and there was always a smile and a `Hi, how are you?' He was definitely a very polite kind of guy.''
Kemp earned his degree in physical education, but after leaving Occidental he enrolled in economics classes at Cal Western and Long Beach State. ``He was just doing it to improve himself,'' Quint said. ``He started reading a lot of the German economists like (Ludwig) von Mises and (Friedrich August) von Hayek. Later, he got focused on politics.''
Kemp's career as a pro football player endured several bumps along the way. Drafted in the 17th round by the Detroit Lions, he was released before the start of the 1957 season. He was eventually cut by five teams in the United States and Canada before signing with the Los Angeles Chargers in 1960. He moved with the franchise to San Diego and later enjoyed his greatest success with the Bills.
Photo: Long before he became Republican nominee for vice pr esident, Jack Kemp was a star quarterback at Occidental. He was no standout in the classroom, but he was - and still is, say his close friends - a highly focused, highly motivated person.
Daily News File Photo