Provo, Utah — In Room 539 of the J. Reuben Clark Library, Willard Mitt Romney, a 23-year-old English major, sat at the round wooden table in his World Classics 1 literature class with a handful of other Brigham Young University students. Three days a week, the young Mormons walked under the school’s iconic Y Mountain, named for a 380-foot concrete letter built into the hillside, then past a bronze statue of church prophet Brigham Young and into the windowless classroom to discuss the great books.
They talked about how writers from the Greeks to Dante illuminated the world in preparation for the moment in the 19th century when the true gospel, as understood by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was restored. Professor Charles Tate encouraged his students to draw connections between the revelation of Mormon scripture and the universal story of “The Odyssey,” Homer’s epic poem of coming home.
For Romney and other students returning from Mormon missions or arriving in Utah for the first time from out of state, BYU offered its own homecoming. The son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, Mitt had grown up in Bloomfield Hills among few Mormons, studied briefly at Stanford University and completed a long, tragedy-marred mission in Le Havre and other French cities forged by Catholicism and unhinged by social upheaval. In February 1969, he enrolled in the church-owned university and, for the first time in his life, found himself entirely among brethren in his faith.
Mitt Romney’s later experiences as a phenomenon at Harvard Law and Business schools, a high-flying financial consultant, and governor of Massachusetts all helped shape the candidate now seeking the Republican nomination for president. But his two years on the BYU campus set the mold into which all else poured. It was here that he finally got the girl, started a family and immersed himself in the rituals and works of his church. Having grown out of his adolescent awkwardness and shed his reputation as a prankster, he turned into an assiduous student, deliberated between a career in business or scholarship, and transformed an elite social club of blazer-clad young men into a fundraising powerhouse.
And yet even as Romney wrapped himself in the warm blue blanket of the BYU campus, its fabric frayed. He attended Brigham Young during its most volatile period, when protests over the war in Vietnam and outrage over the church ban on blacks in the Mormon priesthood had penetrated Provo and rattled a conservative enclave traditionally immune to discord. Liberals took over the student body leadership, and administration figures retaliated by organizing spy rings on activist students and sympathetic teachers.
And while Romney’s father, by then an unsuccessful presidential candidate who had joined the Nixon Cabinet, addressed the student body about the injustices of racial inequality and the tragedy of the war, his son shut out the formative issues of his day as destructive distractions. Instead, he turned to the traditional Mormon tenets of family, faith and hard work as the blueprint for building a safer, more impenetrable place for himself.