February 2, 2012 at 1:00 am

How Metro Detroit helped shape Mitt Romney

Long before Mitt Romney became a candidate for president of the United States, he was a lanky teenager in Bloomfield Hills with a penchant for practical jokes rather than for politics.

During one such elaborate prank, Romney dressed in a uniform, put a flashing light atop a borrowed car and impersonating a police officer pulled up behind a car with two of his friends and their dates.

After a search of the trunk found alcohol bottles the friends had planted, the girls were shocked. Romney's two friends sped away and Romney gave chase, but couldn't keep up.

"It wasn't a very funny joke for them (the girls)," recalled Cranbrook classmate Graham McDonald. "But it was a funny joke for us."

This is the Romney students from the Cranbrook class of '65 say they remember: a sometimes klutzy teen with an infectious laugh. Though the son of a prominent, wealthy auto executive turned popular three-term governor, Romney was a lighthearted kid who didn't boast about the family name and instead cared more about having fun.

Growing up as part of an influential business and political family that considered public service a calling set in motion a path that has taken Romney from Cranbrook to Harvard to rescuer of the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, Massachusetts governor and now pursuing the GOP nomination for the nation's highest office. His privileged upbringing and the influence of his father fostered a determination to succeed in business and a sense of duty to serve his country.

Romney was not available for an interview, his campaign said.

On the campaign trail, where Romney won the Florida primary Tuesday, he is often portrayed as the candidate with picture perfect looks, strong but stiff stature and neatly-coiffed hair.

But at Cranbrook, "he was your typical, gawky, tall, skinny adolescent boy," said classmate and friend Jim Bailey, one of several who noted the stark contrast between the young and adult Romney.

Presidential material in those days? Not so much, his classmates recalled. It was Bailey, a taller, talented athlete and class president, whom they pegged as the likely candidate for the Oval Office.

"Jim Bailey would have been the runaway pick," said Sidney Barthwell Jr., the sole African-American graduate of the Cranbrook class of '65 and current magistrate in 36th District Court.

Romney wasn't a standout at the elite boys boarding school — not the best student, not the most popular and not the greatest athlete. He cheered in the pep squad and carried the sticks and pucks as a hockey team manager. His biggest sports highlight was collapsing in a crowded stadium at the end of his first cross country race.

Romney didn't let the dramatic public fall dampen his spirits, friends said. He shrugged it off with a sense of humor, much like he's able to pick himself up today, Bailey said. Mistakes may derail some people, he said, but Romney takes a step back and asks: "What can I do to stay better on the track?"

Now, Romney is fighting for a second shot at another race. After losing the GOP presidential nomination in 2008 to Sen. John McCain, Romney is seeking another run at the White House after studying his faults from his failed bid four years ago and hoping better training will deliver the win that eluded him — and his father.

"I really believe the reason we are involved in politics is because of George Romney," Mitt's wife, Ann, said of George's example of service. Without that influence, "I don't think it would have ever occurred to us to get involved in politics."

The 'miracle baby'

George Romney was a rising star in the auto industry when Willard Mitt Romney, the youngest of four children, was born March 12, 1947, in Detroit to a long line of Mormon pioneers. Family dubbed him a "miracle baby" since doctors told Lenore Romney she couldn't carry another child and the Romneys were preparing to adopt, brother Scott Romney said.

George Romney's journey to Michigan started when his ancestors settled in a Mormon colony in Mexico in the 19th century around the time the U.S. government outlawed the practice of polygamy.

To escape Mexican revolutionaries, George, then 5, and his monogamist parents left Mexico, first heading to a refugee camp in El Paso, Texas, then to California, Idaho and Utah, where he grew up poor and didn't graduate from college.

By the time Mitt was born, George had successfully fostered cooperation among car manufacturers to transition to making aircraft and other materials during World War II.

In his autobiographical book, "Turnaround," Mitt describes his father's sense of mission in business and in politics: It wasn't a job but a calling and purpose. It left a lasting impression on Mitt and his siblings.

The name Willard came from George Romney's friend, J. Willard Marriott, the hotel founder, and Mitt for a cousin who played professional football. The Romneys moved to Bloomfield Hills when Mitt was in kindergarten and until around first grade, Romney went by Billy.

"This is my big secret," Romney told CBS News in 2008 after encountering his Vaughn Elementary School first-grade teacher on a campaign stop in Livonia. "… I didn't want to be Billy anymore because there was a song they sung back then: 'Where Have You Been Billy Boy' … and I did not like that song, so I convinced my mom to let me use my middle name."

The energetic Romney started seventh grade at Cranbrook Schools in the fall of 1959 at the age of 12, following in his siblings' footsteps. His father was then at the helm of American Motors Corp. where he turned around the struggling automaker to profitability by championing the compact Rambler as an alternative to the Big Three's "gas-guzzling dinosaurs."

That year, George Romney made the cover of Time magazine and the Romneys' wealth and prominence were rising.

Idolizing his father, the young Romney had a great interest in cars, brother Scott said. "He could easily tell the difference of a car by looking at the quarter panel," Scott recalled. Naturally curious, he would question his dad about the business: "If Ramblers are such good cars why doesn't everybody have them?"

In 1962, George Romney, who succeeded in his citizen's movement to convene a constitutional convention in Michigan, capitalized on his political success and ran for governor in his first bid for statewide office. Mitt was 15 years old when his dad defeated one-term Gov. John B. Swainson and ushered out 14 years of Democratic leadership.

Campaigning for Dad

The young Romney joined the election effort and visited all 83 Michigan counties over two campaigns, telling Michiganians: "You should vote for my father for governor. He's truly a great person," according to "Turnaround."

As the son of the state's most prominent politician at an elite prep school, Mitt could have easily inflated his ego. Instead, friends say, he downplayed his family ties, didn't take school too seriously and was good-natured.

George Romney, who grew up poor, insisted his children know the value of hard work despite the trappings of a comfortable upbringing in an exclusive suburb. Romney hated the weeding, mowing, shoveling and gardening his father tasked him with.

"They probably worked harder and had more chores than any kids you went to school with," recalls Phillip Maxwell, an attorney in Oxford who went to Vaughn Elementary and Cranbrook with Romney, "You couldn't do anything with a Romney on a Saturday."

At Cranbrook, where other industry executives sent their sons, classmates were driving Pontiac GTOs and Corvettes, Bailey recalled, Romney drove a Rambler, which in the context of teens, "was the least cool car in the entire world."

The Romneys were devout Mormons, which meant no drinking, smoking and no campaigning on Sundays. George Romney presided over the Detroit Stake, or district, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One time Romney bent the rules at a party after graduation and indulged in some beers, but got sick, Maxwell recalled. The experience was "most effective of curing him of drinking again."

At Cranbrook, Romney was active in campus life. According to his senior yearbook, his activities were cross country, hockey manager, Glee Club, Pre-Med Club, Church Cabinet, The Forum, Pep Club, Blue Key Club, American Field Service, World Affairs Seminar, Speculator's Club, Homecoming Committee chair, assistant editor of the yearbook, "The Brook," and Inter-House Council Form 6 Representative from Stevens Hall.

Meeting Ann Davies

The biggest turning point in the life of young Mitt came when he fell for Ann Davies, a sophomore at the girls school, Kingswood School Cranbrook. Davies was beautiful, graceful and popular. They connected at a party where Romney persuaded her date to let him give Davies a ride home with the excuse he lived closer — about a mile away from her Bloomfield Hills home.

"He's said the first moment he saw her he fell in love with her," said John Rakolta Jr., CEO of Walbridge and a Romney friend and campaigner.

Davies, however, was not so convinced. Infatuation at first sight, she says. But there was one problem: "He dated a lot of my friends," Ann told The News, taking them out for four to six weeks and then splitting. "I kept him at bay and I think that drove him crazy," she said.

Romney persisted and eventually Ann agreed to a first date to see "The Sound of Music." The Romney family also grew fond of her. The summer when she was 16, Romney invited her to the governor's mansion on Mackinac Island. By the time of his senior prom, "we were very deeply in love," she said.

When Gov. Romney delivered the Cranbrook commencement address to Mitt and his fellow 1965 graduates, he stressed the importance of picking the right girlfriend: "She will have more to do with shaping your life than probably anybody else," he said. George was speaking from experience. He was devoted to his wife, Lenore, an aspiring actress who passed on a $50,000 MGM contract to marry him.

George and Mitt felt Ann was a wise choice.

"I think he fell in love with me, like Mitt fell in love with me," Ann said.

A time apart

Romney headed to Stanford for his freshman year in college while Ann continued at Kingswood. After his first year, Romney departed on a 21/2 year missionary trip, as is customary for Mormon young men. His was to France.

It was George who made sure the Romneys would remain an important part of the Ann's life. George included her in all the family events. She was interested in becoming a Mormon, and the governor picked her up for church on Sundays. He later baptized her. During Mitt's absence, George launched a presidential bid in Detroit in November 1967, pledging to "build a new America." By February 1968 the governor withdrew, dogged by remarks that his early support of the Vietnam War resulted from being brainwashed by U.S. generals and diplomats.

In a 2007 interview with the New York Times, Romney said his presidential campaign was an extension of his father's: "Like a relay team where the baton passed from generation to generation." He added, "I am a shadow of the real deal."

When Mitt returned home, Ann greeted him at the airport. "We were back to where we were instantly." On the car ride home, the joyful couple decided: "Let's get married right now," said Ann, whose father, Edward Davies, was the former mayor of Bloomfield Hills and president of Jered Industries in Troy.

Ann Davies, 19, and Mitt, 22, were married in a civil ceremony in the Davies' Bloomfield Hills living room in March 1969.

The couple settled into a basement apartment near Brigham Young University where they both resumed college. Their wedding gift from the Romneys: a light blue Rambler sports car.

A move to Boston

After Mitt graduated from Brigham Young, the Romneys moved to Boston where Mitt completed a highly competitive joint law and business degree program at Harvard in 1975.

Bailey, his former Cranbrook classmate, was also in the program and noticed a marked difference from the former jokester to serious student with a growing family.

The demands of the Harvard program were nonstop. "It was seven days a week, 24 hours a day," Bailey recalled, who was unmarried at the time. "To do that with a family … would have been very hard."

Though Romney never lived in Michigan again, his family ties here remained strong: His parents still lived in Bloomfield Hills. In 1970, Romney returned to campaign for his mother Lenore's failed attempt to challenge iconic U.S. Sen. Philip Hart, Scott Romney said.

George Romney, who launched a national volunteer effort after politics, would advise Mitt about his future political plans: Don't run for office if your children are young and you need a win to pay your mortgage. However, when you're in a position to serve, you have a responsibility to do so if you can make a difference. In Massachusetts, Mitt and Ann raised five sons and he launched the professional career that's formed the backbone for the economic experience he cites as making him presidential material. He joined Bain & Co. consulting firm in 1978 and six years later founded Bain Capital, a venture capital fund that invested in startups as well as leveraged buyouts.

Giving back by running

Encouraged by Ann and stirred by a family belief that a person in a position to contribute to society has an obligation to do so, Romney decided at age 46 to follow in the family's footsteps into politics in Massachusetts. In 1994, he waged a challenge to one of most legendary names in politics, Democratic U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy.

His dad advised him to wait six more years before running. "I thought he ought to get better known," the elder Romney told The Detroit News at the time. But his father, 87, couldn't stay away from the challenge and stumped throughout Massachusetts five or six days a week.

The race was initially close, but Romney lost. Much like Republican presidential candidates today, Kennedy questioned Romney's assertion he helped create jobs while at Bain.

George Romney, Mitt's mentor for the campaign, died July, 26, 1995, at the age 88, collapsing on the treadmill in his Bloomfield Hills home. Lenore, 89, passed away July 7, 1998.

Shortly after he lost the Senate race, Mitt got a call to head the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics, which had been marred by a bid scandal. Mitt left his successful Boston firm, which was worth billions, and went to work without collecting a salary. Ann, who was weak and had recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, encouraged the move.

It was here where Romney gained widespread attention, dubbed a "white knight" for turning around the committee's image, slashing the budget and courting new sponsors.

Buoyed by the success of the Games, Romney tried again at another statewide race in Massachusetts, and this time became governor in 2002. He balanced the budget, raised fees and his signature accomplishment was ushering in health care reform to cover the uninsured.

Romney served only one term as his sights were set on higher office. A month after his term ended, a more polished Romney preaching family values headed back to his native state Feb. 13, 2007, to announce at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn he was seeking to be president of the United States.

"I always imagined that I would come back to Michigan someday," Romney said, surrounded by Ann, five sons, grandchildren and cars. "… I hadn't imagined it would happen this way, but I am back today. Thank you, Michigan."

The staged Romney — poised, accomplished and in full political mode — wasn't familiar to Cranbrook classmate Stuart White, who pulled off the police prank with him decades earlier. But after the speech, the lighthearted Romney had a moment.

Seeing White in the audience, Romney yelled out: "Hey Stu!" Then louder: "Hey Stuie!" and waved with a huge smile.

"It was very familiar to the way I remembered him," White recalled.

The campaign trail

Romney won the GOP primary here in January 2008, but ended his campaign the next month after Sen. John McCain won in most of the Super Tuesday states and went on to win the nomination but lose to Democrat Barack Obama.

In November 2008, Romney penned a controversial editorial in the New York Times that was headlined: "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." The son of a former auto executive preached against federal bailouts for struggling automakers, believing the industry needed a turnaround through a managed bankruptcy. Romney hasn't retreated; instead; he's upped the rhetoric, comparing Obama's federal support to "crony capitalism."

About a year later, Romney and his campaign advisers gathered at his Utah ski home to assess his campaign loss. Romney impressed Rakolta by not only taking responsibility, but also offering a detailed negative critique of himself on what he should have done better.

The self-effacing analysis harkened back to Romney's days as a teen who fumbled at the end of a race, but had the resolution to shake it off.

Now, he hopes to be the one standing at the finish.


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Detroit News Editorial AssistantHolly Fournier contributed.

George Romney talks with son Mitt in 1957. The three-term Michigan governor was a huge influence on his son, who called the elder Romney the real deal. / Romney family photo
Romney jokes about how Michiganians show where they are from at the ... (John L. Russell Special to The Detroit News)