Looking Back–A Century Since His Birth
Rumor has it that if a Romney were to drown in a river, the body would be found upstream. Romney determination, it is said, is nothing to be trifled with.
That hereditary drive put George Wilcken Romney in the company of presidents and prophets, business barons and civil rights activists, wrapped around a secure foundation of family, church, and a razor-sharp focus to make America better.
Born on 8 July 1907, George Romney passed away 26 July 1995, while exercising on his treadmill.
This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of George’s birth.
GROWING UP ROMNEY
The young George got a strong dose of family fortitude—and change—early on. At age five he and his family fled the Mormon colony of Chihuahua when Pancho Villa expelled the Americans from Mexico. They left behind a profitable business and found only a refugee-like existence in El Paso, Texas. The family then moved to Los Angeles, and George’s father entered the contracting business. The 1921 recession brought financial reverses, and the Romneys started over in Idaho. Just as business was prospering, the 1929 depression hit, and once again they had to rebuild, moving this time to Salt Lake City.
Even in high school, both George and his future wife, Lenore LaFount, stood out in the crowd. As seniors, he was nominated for student body president and she for vice president. “The kids voted for me, but they didn’t for her because they said if we were both elected, she’d run the school,” George said.1 Later, after Lenore married George, she ran for the Senate in 1970, winning the primaries but losing the final election.
George studied at the University of Utah, then decided to go to Washington, D.C., where Lenore and her family were living. But when Lenore landed a lucrative $50,000 acting contract with MGM in Hollywood, George finagled a transfer to Los Angeles from his Washington, D.C., job. It was Romney’s singled-minded determination that enabled him to win the hand of his sweetheart. He called it the best sale of his life.
Marrying George was no sacrifice, said Lenore. “It wasn’t hard to give up my acting career,” she said. “I was so crazy about him I knew I would rather marry him than do anything else. I always wanted to be George’s wife, and it didn’t matter if he was the governor or a ditchdigger.”2
FOUNDED IN FAMILY
Although Romney was incredibly busy, he was a family man. His four children—Lynne, Scott, Mitt, and Jane—adored him, as did his grandchildren.
“My favorite memories I have were the summers at our family’s beach cottage on Lake Huron, Canada,” says granddaughter Kristen Hubbs. “Barta (George’s nickname) was always up early to see a spectacular sunrise, to take an early walk or run, or to read.”
“He gave Mahs (Lenore) a rose every morning of their marriage,” Hubbs continues. “He loved a good joke and laughed heartily and usually longer than anyone else. He often had special treats for my grandmother, like raspberries, a pretty dress, or something special. He loved flowers and was an amazing gardener. I remember countless Sunday meals at their home, where he was the head cook.”
When the grandkids turned twelve, George would drive them across America for a month during the summer. He was an aggressive driver, even in his eighties. On one trip seventeen-year-old Matt Romney was recruited by his parents to keep an eye on George’s driving habits. Matt accosted his grandpa about his fast driving, and eventually George conceded that he needed to work on his patience. He would laugh and tell that story with friends and family.
“I get emotional thinking about this incident now, about his profound humility,” Matt says.
A RAPID RISE
Skimming the want ads in Washington, D.C., Romney noticed a secretarial position in Senator David Walsh’s office. Though Romney had few secretarial skills, he landed the job. Shortly thereafter, Walsh asked him to be a tariff specialist, and Romney sat on the floor of the U.S. Senate for nine months.
Romney’s work caught the eye of the Aluminum Corporation of America (Alcoa), and his subsequent activities as a lobbyist for Alcoa and the Aluminum Wares Association in Washington, D.C., impressed officials in the Automobile Manufacturers Association in Detroit. In a short time his visibility within the automotive industry increased dramatically. When the Automotive Council for War Production—a cooperative effort that all 650 companies in the automotive industry organized after Pearl Harbor to expedite the output of arms—was formed in 1941, thirty-four-year-old Romney was named to head the council.
During the war Romney became the industry’s chief spokesperson, testifying frequently before congressional committees on war production methods, labor, and management in the auto industry.
He became president of American Motors in 1954 and served in that position until 1962. Few people thought Romney could compete seriously with the other “big three” auto companies or that there was a market for American-made compacts. American Motors steadily lost money until the first quarter of 1958, when it was the only auto company to show an upturn in sales, thanks to its Rambler line of compact cars.
“I was like a skunk at a picnic back then,” Romney said. “Not only had we successfully marketed the first small, economic car in the American market, I had worked out a profit-sharing program, and the other companies thought that was horrible. Share the profits with the workers? They couldn’t imagine it.”3
Romney’s involvement with the wartime cooperative effort in WWII propelled him into numerous cooperative citizen efforts, the beginnings of his activity in public life. He attributed the development of his leadership skills to his church training and had strong ideas about what a leader should be. He served a mission in Great Britain and was later called to serve as a stake president, a regional representative, and a patriarch.
“You develop the ability to communicate and work with people, and that’s the most important aspect of any leadership responsibility,” he said. “The other skill you need is the ability to persuade, because real leadership doesn’t depend on authority.”4
It was the fight for a new Michigan constitution that brought Romney from auto making to politics. After fasting and prayer, he decided to leave American Motors to enter politics. In a heavily union state, Romney defeated Democrat John D. Swainson for the governorship of Michigan in 1962 by less than one percent. Romney served three terms as governor, helping revise the state’s constitution and tax laws.
He introduced open housing to the state’s suburbs and mandated that every state board include representatives of Michigan’s diverse population. He resigned from his athletic club because blacks were not welcome. He mandated a civil rights commission, the first in the nation, and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Detroit. After King was assassinated in 1968, Romney flew to Atlanta and was one of a handful of Republicans to march in King’s funeral procession alongside Coretta Scott King.5
Romney was not shy about expressing his opinion on national problems. As governor he constantly amazed the Michigan press with his directness on issues. And he was simply unpretentious. He packed a sack lunch. He had a modest home. He rode the subways and flew coach class. He treasured his lifetime McDonald’s pass that Joan Kroc, the widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, gave him.
When Romney decided to throw his hat into the presidential arena on 18 November 1967, Lenore was by his side. He wrote, “We can, we must, solve the problems on which the federal bureaucracy has so obviously failed. Our national government must lead in identifying national problems, establishing priorities, and encouraging maximum state, local, and private effort in their solution. To succeed we must decentralize problem-solving responsibility and action.”6 Romney also mentioned Vietnam in that speech: “We are mired in an Asian land war, which sacrifices our young men and drains our resources, with no end in sight,” he said. Later during a television talk show, he commented on American involvement in Vietnam and how he had been “brain-washed” about the war.
“The press attacked him in a cruel way,” Lenore said. “It hurt. But I’ve always had the vision of what we’re trying to do. His faith has sustained him during hard times, as well as his belief in himself.”7 He withdrew from the race on 28 February 1968.
Romney returned to his routine as governor of Michigan. Then President Richard Nixon asked Romney to become secretary of housing and urban development in 1969.
According to friend Bonner Ritchie, those years were a tough time for Romney. “He had so much integrity, commitment, and honesty, yet he was troubled about the Nixon White House,” Ritchie says. In 1973, after being shackled by the laborious bureaucratic process that was part of his job as secretary of HUD, Romney resigned from Nixon’s cabinet.
Throughout his adult life Romney promoted volunteerism, especially after his retirement from public service. He was even dubbed the Father of Volunteerism.
“The ultimate power in a free society is the exercise of power by the people,” Romney said. “There’s nothing more powerful than a coalition of concerned, informed citizens who have cast aside partisan and economic interests and are in agreement as to what ought to be done.”8
Romney organized the National Center for Voluntary Action and accepted an appointment to be one of the directors of President George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light Program, which acknowledged the achievements of outstanding citizen volunteers. In 1987 the Points of Light Foundation and Volunteer Center National Network established the Lenore and George W. Romney Citizen Volunteer Award, and the inaugural honor was presented to Romney.
Romney’s dream was to organize a presidential summit on volunteerism. On 11 April 1997, President Bill Clinton and former President George Bush co-chaired the President’s Summit for America’s Future, in Philadelphia. Joining them were Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush, former President Gerald R. Ford and Betty Ford, former President Jimmy Carter and Rosaylnn Carter, and Nancy Reagan, representing her husband. General Colin L. Powell ran the event. Unfortunately, Romney wasn’t able to witness it—he passed away about a year and a half before the summit.
George Romney’s impact has been felt far and wide over the past few decades of American history. His formula for success: “Seek diligently, pray always, be believing, and all things will work together for your good.”
His is a great legacy of volunteerism, dignity, honesty, and perseverance. He said, “The most important things, and the most satisfying part of my life, have been my family and my church.”9
ABOUT THE ROMNEY INSTITUTE OF PUBLIC MANAGEMENT
The institute was named for George W. Romney in 1998. It offers a master’s degree in public administration through both pre-service and executive programs. The institute has a long tradition of preparing people for careers in public service and is dedicated to educating men and women of faith, character, and professional ability who will become outstanding managers and leaders in public and not-for-profit institutions.
The Romney Institute is a tight-knit group of faculty, students, and alumni striving for common goals. A notably approachable faculty, a collaborative environment for students, and a strong alumni network distinguish the Romney Institute’s MPA program as one of the finest in the country.
Article written by Kathleen Lubeck Peterson
Photography by Bradley Slade
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kathleen Lubeck Peterson has written for the Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register, The Christian Science Monitor, Science Digest, church publications, Deseret News, and Salt Lake Tribune. She likes See's Candies. Peterson earned a BA in English from BYU in 1971 and an MA in American literature at BYU in 1974.
- “Driven,” This People, May 1984, p. 22.
- This People, May 1984, p. 22.
- This People, p. 21.
- This People, p. 23.
- A Walking Beacon: George Romney’s Legacy of Citizens Service, [Working Title, not published], M. Sue Bergin, J. Bonner Ritchie, Dale Wright, p. 49.
- Governor George Romney of Michigan, Veteran’s Memorial Building, Detroit, 18 November 1967.
- This People, p. 24.
- This People, p. 26.