At the temple, the Romneys would enter a special room where a proxy, clad in white robes, waded into a large baptismal font resting on the backs of 12 sculpted oxen. The proxy then was vicariously baptized in the name of deceased people — often, but not always, relatives. (Ann’s father, Edward R. Davies, a lifelong nonbeliever, received the rite a year after his death.)
Romney’s involvement in the church extended beyond rituals and into the good works central to a religion forged by pioneers. He helped lead a church-run effort to clean up the Provo River and impressed his fellow students as a gifted speaker. One morning at the Provo Tabernacle, the presiding church authority announced that Romney would give some remarks after an opening prayer and song. Yet Romney was nowhere to be seen.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Here Mitt is, a real straight shooter, and he was going to be hugely embarrassed,” said Tristan Pico, a friend of Romney’s and a Cougar Club member. Pico had bumped into the Romneys at the movies the night before for a showing of “The Arrangement,” a poorly received melodrama about a philandering ad man who gets into a car crash, and he wondered if Romney had slept late.
The couple arrived soon after, and Romney’s head jerked to attention when someone whispered in his ear that his name had been called. He calmly walked to the front of the congregation and delivered a sermon based on the life lessons he had gleaned from the movie. “One of which was that one had to know who they were,” Pico said, “and have the ability to act on that throughout their life and be consistent and good.”
Eye toward success
Along with finding spouses and affirming faith, the BYU experience was also meant to emphasize making a living, professional success, as a means of strengthening the Mormon family. Romney’s father, before entering politics, had made a fortune turning around American Motors Corp. with the Rambler, and now the son obsessed over how he would make his own entrepreneurial mark.
“I remember him saying, ‘Golly, Dane, you’re so lucky,’ ” said McBride, then a pre-med student. “ ‘I don’t have a clue what I’m going to be doing, you know? I don’t know how I’m going to make a living for my family.’ ”
But during his first summer break from BYU, Romney had an idea. He had convinced a corporation called Edcor that he could make it a bundle selling its new cordless microphones around the Michigan area. He and his new wife returned from Utah to the home of her parents in Bloomfield Hills. There, Romney called on former mission companions from his days in France and sent them out to knock on doors to sell microphones in the same way they had their church. Though the young men expected a windfall of about $10,000 each in commissions, Romney ended up making a few thousand dollars while his former missionary friends fared worse, relying on Ann’s mother for meals of pancakes or lasagna, according to McBride.
When Romney returned to campus, his financial acumen sharpened, to the benefit of the school.
In 1970, Romney joined the Cougar Club, the president of which was Kim Cameron, his former competitor for Ann’s affections. Cameron said there was “no tension” when he helped interview Romney for entrance into the club and that he found the underclassman remarkably impressive.
“We set a goal of a million dollars,” said Cameron, who recalled Romney helping to successfully appeal to David Haight, the school’s administrator and grandfather of future Utah governor Jon Huntsman, for the names of potential donors among wealthy alumni. They eventually reached their goal.
“I remember the first time I rushed Cougar Club I didn’t get in, which of course was devastating,” said Merril Dayton, now a doctor in Buffalo. “When I did get in, they said, ‘Did you know that Governor Romney has a son in Cougar Club?’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t. What’s his name?’ And they said, ‘Mitt Romney. In fact, he’s running for president of Cougar Club.’ ”
Romney’s fellow “Cougar Men” rewarded his innovation with the club’s presidency.
On Page 379 in the 1971 school yearbook, Romney, wearing blazer, tie and slacks, is identified as club president as he kneels with other members in front of a pond on a farm outside Provo. The opposite page reads: “What student group would accept the challenge to raise $100,000 in twelve months’ time? Cougar Club did without hesitation.”
Romney gained a reputation for decisively presiding over meetings in the old alumni house and applying a bolder vision of the club. In addition to the traditional sale of chrysanthemums for homecoming and pushing records of BYU fight songs and tickets to football games, Romney “did things in Cougar Club that had never been done before,” according to Clint Hunter, a junior member of the club. “Mitt had much grander concepts of how you raise money.”
He invited speakers to address the club, including Stephen Covey, a BYU professor who later became famous for writing “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” and followed some of their advice by masterminding a high-octane fundraising drive.
“He proposed, ‘Why don’t we leave this school that we love so much a real legacy?’ ” McBride said. “Some of the guys said, ‘Mitt, you can only have only so many luaus a year, you know.’ He said, ‘What if we can get the school administration to share with us the contact information of everybody who has ever matriculated through the school.’ And we set up phone banks and got the students to make these calls as volunteers.”
Romney also worked out a deal with a local car dealership so that the Cougar Men, along with their wives or girlfriends, would pick up prospective donors in new, polished cars for a spring day of activities and presentations. When rival universities, furious about the Mormon Church’s ban on blacks in the priesthood, caused disturbances at games, the Cougar Club felt under siege, according to McBride.
“Can you believe these guys doing this to us?” was how Romney and other club leaders felt, McBride said. Their response was to “raise more money for the school.”
In October 1997, Romney, then managing director at Bain Capital, returned to campus as the College of Humanities’ honored alumnus and gave a lecture called “Defying the Experts: How to Win in the Games of Life.” As part of the program, Kristine Hansen, a former classmate and now an English professor at the university, presented Romney with membership to the school’s Phi Kappa Phi society of academic achievers. He graciously received the honor, and then joked that the society had invited him to join as a student but that he declined “because it cost money,” recalled Hansen, who had declined the honor herself as a student because she could not afford the nominal fee. “I thought, ‘You could have paid that,’ ” she said. “To me, it wasn’t that funny.”
As a student in the clubby Honors Program, a version of a great-books liberal arts college within the wider university, Romney made a point of greeting teachers in the hall. C. Terry Warner, a Yale-trained philosophy professor who ran the program, was so close to Romney that the two played the market together and took a bath on some bad stocks.
Besides acting as Romney’s financial adviser, Warner taught him to seek echoes of major philosophical insights in the church’s own intellectual and religious tradition and to feel free to express those connections. “It’s like the censorship is removed and you can enunciate the strengths you’ve always believed in,” Warner said.
Romney’s seriousness as a student impressed many classmates, who considered him exceptionally well prepared and emblematic of the ambitious pre-law and business students in the English department. But his teacher’s pet persona rubbed some students the wrong way.
Terrell Hunt, the Cougar Man whose antiestablishment posture included the sporting of a controversial mustache, took Warner’s philosophy class with Romney. When Warner sharply critiqued Hunt’s 100-page final paper, the student responded with a letter asking, “Is the analysis on comments you made on my paper typical to the comments you made on other students in the class? In fact, I’d like to see your comments on Mitt Romney’s paper.”
In a botany class, Hansen recalled Romney as someone “full of himself” and “very aware of who he was. He realized he was good looking and the son of a famous man. When he walked into the class, it was like, ‘Mitt’s here.’ ”
And yet Romney apparently had a more literary side, discordant with his present strictly business image and recent reading lists. (He has cited “Battleship Earth” as a favorite.) The chairman of the English department at the time, Marshall Craig, liked telling a story about how Romney, when approaching graduation, came to him seeking advice on pursuing a doctorate in English literature.
“You can afford to read all the books you’d like, but why would you get a PhD and starve?” Craig often recounted telling Romney, according to John Tanner, an English professor and currently the head of the Sao Paulo South Mission in Brazil. “You should get an MBA.”
On May 5, 1971, the university held its Honors Program Banquet at the Wilkinson Center. After listening to a Mozart quartet, the audience paid tribute to the 11 students, including Romney, who performed well enough on rigorous exit interviews to receive highest honors. The banquet program noted that Romney, who earned cum laude recognition, would attend Harvard to pursue an MBA. At graduation in August, he again followed in his competitor Cameron’s footsteps and delivered the “Expression from Graduates” address.
More than 40 years after Romney left Brigham Young, on the eve of the South Carolina primary, McBride attended a Romney campaign event and caught the candidate’s eye on a rope line. Romney wrote down a number and asked his college pal to give him a call late that night.
“Well, it looks like we’re not going to do all that well tomorrow. But I want you to know that it means a whole lot to me that you’re here,” Romney said, according to McBride. The two old friends then reminisced about their days in Provo and in France. They recalled the parody songs they had written to raise morale for missionaries and the way they sang them to their newlywed wives in the tiny basement apartment in Provo.
We Elders of Angouleme are
Broke, hungry and no check from afar
Eating solely ravioli
Out of a mason jar
To the tune of “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” Romney and his old friend rounded into the chorus:
Oh, woe, starving elders man the fight
To keep vultures out of sight
Will we make it or forsake it
To seek food in the street tonight?