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Long before Yale Law, before Arkansas, before her marriage to Bill, before the Senate, the White House, her own (first?) run for the White House, the State Department, the “texts from Hillary” meme that just keeps on giving and so many other highlights (and lowlights) of her remarkable life, she was Hillary Diane Rodham, the older sister of two brothers and the over-achieving daughter of loving, politically conservative parents from suburban Park Ridge, Ill.
Intelligent, intensely curious and, from a young age, driven to find a way to somehow contribute to the world around her, Hillary Rodham enrolled at Wellesley College in the fall of 1965. It was there, in Massachusetts, that the moderate Republican underwent her transformation (she might characterize it as “an evolution”) to committed Democrat.
By the time she graduated from Wellesley in May 1969, Hillary Rodham was already such a notable figure that she was featured, along with four other speakers from four other schools — and excerpts from their commencement addresses — in the June 20, 1969, issue of LIFE, in an article titled, simply, “The Class of ’69.”
Her speech was, perhaps not surprisingly, less strident and confrontational than those of the other student speakers quoted in the issue; as early as 1969, Hillary was showing signs of that phenomenal ability to modulate her message — without diluting or compromising it — that helps explain so much of her success in public life. The other student speakers featured in that June 1969 issue included Yale’s William Thompson; Justin Simon at Brandeis; Mills College’s Stephanie Mills, now an author and fellow at the Post Carbon Institute; and Brown University’s Ira Magaziner — a high-profile student activist who went on to become a business strategist and, coincidentally (or not), a senior adviser in the Clinton White House. Today, Magaziner works for the Clinton Foundation.
Here, LIFE.com presents a series of pictures by photographer Lee Balterman, only one of which would run in the June 20 issue of LIFE, made at the Rodham home in Park Ridge in mid-June 1969, a week and a half after she graduated from Wellesley. Leaving aside the insights into late-Sixties fashion that these pictures afford, one senses in Balterman’s informal portraits a nimble — and perhaps somewhat restless — intellect at play.
Here, the pictures suggest, is a self-possessed young woman coming fully into her own.
In the LIFE archives, meanwhile, one finds tantalizing insights into the younger Hillary that never made it into the magazine. For instance, in a note dated June 11, 1969, that accompanied Balterman’s rolls of film when they were sent from Illinois to LIFE’s offices in New York, we learn that Hillary told reporter Joan Downs that “press accounts of her commencement speech were vastly different from what she actually said because the speech wasn’t written out and taped transcripts were unavailable until several days after commencement.”
“She’s also quite concerned” the note continues, “that it be made clear she was not attacking Senator Brooke personally.” Senator Edward Brooke, the first African-American elected to the Senate and the last Republican Senator elected from Massachusetts until Scott Brown’s election in 2010, spoke before Hillary Rodham at Wellesley’s commencement, and she deviated from her prepared remarks to address at least part of what he said.
Another Balterman note in the archive, meanwhile, written in the photographer’s own hand, points to a less dramatic, if no less revealing, element of the photo shoot: “Had to go for nothing more than informal portraits, but should be some good expressions & hand gestures, etc.,” the note reads, before ending with a simple and, all these years later, somehow touching observation: “Her glasses helped.”
Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.