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.

On the trail today, Mitt Romney, whose campaign declined to comment for this story, often seems outside his comfort zone. But four decades ago on the orderly college campus, he exuded the confidence of a young man utterly at home in his world. That sense of ease was apparent even when Professor Tate popped a surprise oral exam on his 1970 literature class, a scene he recalled recently as he sat in his book-lined living room, looking through bifocals at Romney’s old report card.

“I went down the line from right to left asking the question. The first one said, ‘I can’t do it,’ and the next one, ‘I don’t know it,’ and the next one the same. And then I said, ‘Okay, now you Brother Romney.’ And he said, ‘Okay, Brother Tate. You’ve humbled us. Now ask us a question we can answer.’ ”

The ‘hunting ground’

In a commencement address not long before Romney arrived at Brigham Young, Ernest L. Wilkinson, the university’s president, declared that the obtaining of a spouse was “more important than the obtaining of a degree.” He called his campus “the happiest hunting ground in the world.” The message had a special meaning for Romney. He was drawn to BYU not only to get closer to his church but also to seal the deal with his high school sweetheart and persuade her to marry him.

When he left high school in suburban Detroit and went to Stanford, the notion of finishing his college career at the Mormon school in Utah was out of the question. “The one place I will not go is BYU!” he told his father, as George Romney later recounted the scene. But an unforeseen challenge to Mitt’s relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Ann Davies, changed his perspective. Suddenly, BYU was the one place he had to be.

Ann, a few years behind him in school, had enrolled at Brigham Young in 1967. Romney by then had left Stanford after his first year to perform missionary work in France. His father, then the Michigan governor, had played a key role in all of this, personally baptizing Ann and her brother into the fold of the Mormon Church. Ann started her freshman year in Provo in 1967 while Mitt was off knocking on doors and seeking converts as a missionary, a task that earned him a draft deferment. Early the next year, Ann came to France for a semester abroad. The couple saw each other rarely and only under strict supervision. One of the church apostles, Howard W. Hunter, later church president, carried a message of greeting from Mitt to Ann in Grenoble, according to Donlu Thayer, who studied with Ann at the time.

Soon after Ann returned to the Brigham Young campus, Romney was shaken by successive traumas. In the summer, a speeding car driven by a French priest crashed into a packed Citroen DS driven by Romney, injuring the mission president, Duane Anderson, and killing Anderson’s wife, Leola, who was seated between the two men.

“We have just learned that President and Sister H. Duane Anderson of the French Mission were involved in a serious head-on collision on the evening of Monday, June 17th,” read the Progress French East Mission report on June 15, 1968. “Sister Anderson passed away within hours of the accident and President Anderson was seriously injured with broken ribs and a broken wrist. Other passengers in the car were injured, apparently not too seriously.”

In fact, Romney was seriously injured, suffering head injuries and a fractured arm, and authorities at the scene first thought he was dead. But he recovered quickly, only to receive another emotional blow: one of the dreaded Dear John letters that papered the walls of Mormon missions around the world arrived with his name on it. Ann wrote to him that back at BYU she had started dating Kim S. Cameron, a student body vice president who would be voted the school’s “most preferred man.”

“We liked each other,” said Cameron, who took Ann tubing in the mountains and to movies, dances and jazz shows.

But at BYU, such young women were often waiting for returning beaus, a circumstance so common that the phrase “she has a missionary” became a campus colloquialism. Less common was for the missionary in question to be the son of the most famous Mormon politician in the United States.

Cameron said Romney, even in absentia, loomed so large as to doom the relationship: “I mean, look, if you have a choice to pick either Mitt Romney or Kim Cameron, who are you going to pick? I mean, 99 out of a hundred, no contest.”

But in France, Romney took the news hard. Friends described him as being “useless” and “near tears.” He pressed intensely for reconciliation through a series of urgent letters. When he finally won Ann back, he agreed to her request that he join her in Provo for at least one semester. “Well, I’ll go for one, then we’ll both go to Stanford,” Mitt responded, according to his father. He got there in February 1969, and the couple stayed in Utah. As the elder Romney later explained at a devotional address to the student body in 1970, when Ann and Mitt were there together, “Now he is just like the rest of you brainwashed students — he thinks BYU is the best university in the country.” By then, the couple had married and moved into a shabby, $62-a-month basement apartment, with cracked tiles in the kitchen floor.

Dane McBride, Romney’s friend and former missionary companion, was also newly married and rented upstairs in the three-story brick building close to campus. He would come down with his wife for spontaneous spaghetti dinners. The men would reprise jovial songs from their missionary days. The Romneys’ first son, Taggart, was brought home to that apartment and stayed in a crib at the foot of their bed.

“I remember Mitt explaining to me the benefits of married life,” said Clayton F. Foulger, a close friend who water-skied with Romney on Lake Utah and still spends summers at the family vacation home on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. “He didn’t have to explain a lot. It was sort of self-evident. But he was appreciative of it, I’ll tell you.”

The benefits of undergraduate matrimony are still promoted on campus. One recent afternoon in the Wilkinson Center, named for the late college president, stacks of Bridal Guide magazine stood under posters advertising a “Premarital Workshop.” (“The proposal went well . . . Now what?”)

A changing campus

BYU observes an honor code, a list of policies requiring students to live a chaste and virtuous life; use clean language; abstain from alcoholic beverages, tobacco, tea and coffee; participate regularly in church services; and observe dress and grooming standards. The school’s honor code burst into the national news this past spring when a star basketball player, Brandon Davies, was suspended shortly before the NCAA tournament for having sex with his girlfriend.

In the era of Mitt Romney, the honor code was only one aspect of a conservative ethos enforced by President Wilkinson.

After an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1964, the hard-line anti-communist returned to the university, where some students and teachers quipped about his fictitious memoir “Mein Campus.” Wilkinson, along with Willard Cleon Skousen, a former Salt Lake City police chief, John Birch Society booster and professor of religion at BYU, began running student spy rings targeting teachers and activist students.

In commencement addresses, Wilkinson, known for performing 100 push-ups at halftime of school basketball games, spoke out against birth control and “the social evils of today, such as beatniks, hippies, drug addicts, free-lovers, college rioters and others who would completely remove cleanliness, morality and all other Christian virtues from our civilization.” He said student radicals should have “their citizenship revoked.”

A strong conservative streak also ran through the classrooms, though some professors in the English department did their best to avoid Wilkinson and give their students a broader education. Reading lists in Romney’s major addressed the ideas of the civil rights movement. Faulkner replaced Hemingway on some syllabi. Richard Cracroft, a professor who went on to chair the English department, said he and others found ways to teach controversial novels such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Catcher in the Rye,” though some established works also caused them headaches.

“These people would go right to the first presidency of the church,” he said, referring to the church’s highest governing body, “and say, ‘Cracroft is teaching this play by Shakespeare, and it is filthy.’ ”

But the campus was changing. More liberal students pored over their copies of Dialogue, a new journal of Mormon thought, and attended campus debates between hard-line and progressive religion professors at the Joseph Smith auditorium. The school paper, the Daily Universe, published letters of protest about the war.

In 1970, students elected a liberal named Brian Walton as their president despite the administration’s attempts to nullify the results.

“It was an unbelievably conservative place,” said Walton, who later left the church and became a chief negotiator for the Screen Writers Guild in Los Angeles. “You wouldn’t believe the things some people were saying — complaining about the civil rights laws, that it would take away their rights.”

Jon Ferguson, Walton’s vice president, also ultimately left the church. He later wrote several novels, including “The Missionary,” about a young Mormon in France who loses his faith. “When we did all this stuff on Vietnam, it was like the first turmoil BYU had had,” Ferguson said. “BYU has never had so much excitement.”

Walton and Ferguson also sought to allay anger over the church doctrine barring black priests by meeting with black student unions around the country.

Romney navigated a vastly different world. “You didn’t think too much of people who were going out to try and demonstrate to persuade the brethren,” said his friend McBride, who noted that only a revelation from the church president could change the doctrine. “It’s not something [Mitt] would have done. From a church and priesthood leadership perspective, it would be unseemly as well as useless.”

When Romney’s old school, Stanford, announced at the end of 1969 that it would boycott athletic competitions with BYU, Romney was incensed.

“I remember sitting in a football stadium with Mitt, he and Ann were sitting next to me, and I do remember Mitt being really angry with Stanford,” said Cameron, Ann’s onetime suitor. “He felt like it was, A, naive, and, B, sort of a bigoted, narrow-minded perspective.”

During Romney’s junior year, Wilkinson issued a flier titled “Men of BYU — A Message from the President,” encouraging participation in the Army Reserve. Walton, Ferguson and others responded at a special ceremony with 500 copies of “An Important Message to the Men of BYU,” which urged alternatives to military service. When a copy reached Wilkinson on the stage in the field house, he shook with rage.

“It was a compilation of quotes from the Bible, the Book of Mormon and presidents and high-ranking officials in the Mormon Church about the horrors and evils of war and warfare,” said Terrell Hunt, one of the pamphlet’s authors and one of the few politically liberal members in Romney’s university booster organization, the Cougar Club. “It would never occur to us to ask Mitt Romney to sign that thing.”

That sort of thing, in fact, was one of the reasons Romney felt no desire to return to Stanford, where as a freshman he had once waved a “Speak Out, Don’t Sit In” sign at protesters. He had thought BYU would be an escape from all of that.

“Let’s face it,” McBride said. “At Stanford and Berkeley, self-respecting college students were taking over the president’s office and ransacking it.”

Romney and ritual

Romney’s aversion to antiestablishment activity, his friends said, was rooted in his religion, specifically Joseph Smith’s 12th Article of Faith: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” This was “not just a code of conduct,” Clayton Foulger said. “It really is belief, and everything sort of arises from that.”

Religion was a major dimension of Romney’s life at BYU, as it has been since. The Mormon Church is broken up into geographical jurisdictions called “stakes,” which comprise congregations called “wards.” In Provo, Romney answered a church calling to be one of two counselors to a lay bishop in his student ward.

At that time, Provo had no Mormon temple, a sacred space within which the faith’s most holy rituals, including marriage sealings, endowments and proxy baptisms for the dead, could be performed. Mitt and Ann had been married for eternity in the Salt Lake Temple, the towering quartz monzonite landmark in Temple Square. As students in possession of a “temple recommend,” a church-issued stamp of good standing, they traveled the hour north from Provo to Salt Lake several times with the McBrides to perform church rituals, including baptisms of the dead.

“It was usually for just regular temple work,” McBride said, “doing the proxy work for someone who is deceased.”

Mormons believe that baptism is an essential right of passage to salvation, that it was performed on the dead in the time of the apostle Paul, and that Smith restored the practice after millenniums of apostasy. They hold that the ritual offers a second chance to accept Christ in the afterlife for those who died before the restoration of the Mormon Church, as well as for those who had failed to receive Mormon baptism since the church’s establishment.

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.”

‘Mitt’s here’

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?