EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally posted on Oct. 16, 2016.
WATERFORD TOWNSHIP — Decades before Kellyanne Conway would fall in love with politics, marry, raise a family, defend Donald Trump — who was elected president — and become one of the most recognizable faces in the presidential campaign, it was clear she was on a mission.
She was 4 when her mother, who raised Conway alone while working in Atlantic City casinos for 22 years, put her in nursery school.
“She went one week and said, ‘I’m not going back. All they do is play all day,’” said Diane Fitzpatrick, Conway’s mother.
Not since Woodrow Wilson became president has New Jersey figured so prominently in a presidential election. From Atlantic City’s casinos to Trump to Gov. Chris Christie, the Garden State has had considerable exposure.
But people may not realize that Trump’s campaign manager, 49, got her start in South Jersey.
Family members say they’re not surprised by Conway’s energy and her ability to shrug off stress. She knew what she wanted from an early age.
“Kellyanne was reading by the age of 3. She loved to learn,” said Fitzpatrick, who is caring for her four grandchildren, ages 6 to 12, while her daughter focuses on the campaign. Conway often leaves the house at 5 a.m. and doesn’t get back until after 11 p.m., said Fitzpatrick.
Conway did not respond to requests for an interview, but family members and friends were generous with their time.
She grew up as Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, the only child in a household full of strong, working women.
Along with her mom, she lived with unmarried aunts Rita and Marie DiNatale and grandmother Antoinette DiNatale in a brick rancher just off the White Horse Pike in the working-class Atco section of Waterford Township in Camden County.
She attended St. Joseph’s High School, just 10 miles east down the pike in Hammonton. Both communities are a mix of farms and suburbs.
During Conway’s childhood, her aunt Rita DiNatale ran Country Farm Custard on the pike, next to Mama D’s and the Country Farm Market, run by another aunt, Angela Coia, and her husband, Ed.
Conway always had a hardworking and competitive streak, probably influenced by living with so many businesswomen, said Coia, who still runs Mama D’s catering and homemade pasta enterprise.
“She just had to be first,” said Coia. “She’d stay up until 1 a.m. studying, sleep, then get up again at 3 a.m. to study some more.”(tncms-asset)b4c91bf8-9243-11e6-9d7e-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)
As a high school junior, she was drawn to politics when President Ronald Reagan came to Hammonton, where he spoke to a crowd estimated at 25,000 downtown, said DiNatale.
As a teen, she was the fastest berry packer at Indian Brand Farms in Hammonton. And that was in the days before automation, said owner and family friend Bill DiMeo, when packers moved berries from wooden field pallets to cardboard containers by hand.
Packers were paid by the piece, so speed meant higher pay, he said.
Christine Massarelli, vice president of Massarelli’s stone garden accent company on South Egg Harbor Road in Hammonton, has been close friends with Conway since kindergarten.
Conway always tried to be the best at what she did, but “she also wanted to make others do their best. She was inclusive,” said Massarelli.
She had no doubt Conway can handle the pressure and scrutiny of managing Trump’s presidential campaign.
“She doesn’t have a stress level,” said Massarelli. “I have never seen her to feel stressed, personally or professionally. She is always someone you can count on.”
But Conway’s ability to handle stress has been put to the test by her candidate, especially after an 11-year-old tape surfaced recently showing him talking about groping and kissing women without their permission, and using offensive language about women.
Fitzpatrick said all the controversy means is that Conway is constantly putting out fires, but that hasn’t lessened her belief in Trump.
“She knows the man. She knows his family,” said Fitzpatrick. “You can’t raise the children that he raised and not be a good person. She believes in everything she is doing.”
Conway first got to know Trump when she lived in Trump Tower in New York City for several years and was on the board of directors there, said Fitzpatrick.
“She always said he made every board meeting,” said Fitzpatrick. “She knew and respected him.”
Although Conway, a Republican pollster and strategist, first supported Ted Cruz in his bid for the Republican nomination, she joined Trump’s team once Cruz quit the race. Her addition to the staff in July appeared to boost Trump’s popularity, until the latest series of missteps that began around the recent debates.(tncms-asset)641868e8-c078-5fa7-96a5-54714df5b25a(/tncms-asset)
Conway became a constant presence on television, so much so that the writers of “Saturday Night Live” satirized her situation in a skit called “A Day Off with Kellyanne Conway.”
In it, actress Kate McKinnon portrays Conway trying to relax and have fun, only to be constantly pulled away from her friends, yoga, even her husband, as Trump’s tweets keep forcing her back into a television studio.
Conway was quick to approve, tweeting that McKinnon “has me down!”
“We thought it was hilarious,” said Coia.
Conway is doing all she can for a candidate in a tough situation, said Sharon Schulman, executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University and a former political campaign strategist.
It can’t be easy for her to defend some of Trump’s comments, she said, but that’s her job.
“He is the client, and it is her job to make him look good so he can win,” said Schulman. “Any of her personal beliefs — and I don’t know what they are — and any feelings she has take second place.”
Despite her success, Conway still keeps roots in South Jersey.
The 1985 valedictorian of St. Joseph’s now sits on the high school’s Board of Trustees. She also owns a vacation home in Ventnor.
Her cousin Rene Adamucci, of Hammonton, was maid of honor at her wedding. Adamucci’s identical twin daughters, Alexa and Astin, 25, have had once-in-a-lifetime memories with Conway.
They call her “Kiki,” said Alexa.
For their eighth-grade graduation, Conway took them on a weeklong vacation in California, where they watched her an episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher” and went out to dinner with her and Maher at the exclusive Beverly Grove restaurant The Ivy.
And for their 16th birthday, Conway gave them a Mercedes SUV, said Alexa, now assistant manager at Gucci in Atlantic City.
When they were considering a career in dance, Conway gave them the use of her Trump Tower apartment for a year, said Alexa, so they could intern at the Broadway Dance Center.(tncms-asset)c6b89f3c-cd71-5869-941b-d302447d90b4(/tncms-asset)
Conway is married to George T. Conway III, a Yale Law School graduate who is a partner in the litigation department of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.
“He actually was riding on a train and he saw a magazine on the seat in front of him. It had her picture on the cover,” said Fitzpatrick. “He read the article, and Ann Coulter was also in the article. He was friends with (Coulter’s) brothers, got in touch and said he wanted to meet her.”
That was about 17 years ago, Fitzpatrick said. They have been married about 15 years and have four children: twins Claudia and George, 12, in sixth grade; Charlotte, 8, in third grade; and Vanessa, 5, in first grade.