In 1968, Mitt Romney was in France serving a full-time LDS mission and contemplating what his life plans held after he returned. He never imagined they would lead him to BYU.
Prior to leaving on his mission to France, Mitt had attended Stanford University for a year with full intent to return two years later. However, when he heard his high school sweetheart, Ann Davies, was attending BYU, his plans changed.
He tried to convince her the best he could to come with him to Stanford when he returned. It wasn’t until every missionary’s worst fear came true for him that he began to reconsider his offer.
Ann had begun dating someone else and wrote Mitt to inform him she would no longer wait for him to return. Stunned and heartbroken, Romney continued to write her while he was away, asking her to be patient.
Eventually, Mitt broke down and agreed to attend BYU with her for a semester. After that they would transfer to Stanford together. She, in turn, agreed to wait for him.
Mitt returned from France in December 1968. Three months later, he and Ann were married.
Later that year they Mitt enrolled at BYU. Mitt and Ann quickly settled down and began focusing on their education. Mitt, a then-English major, was very involved and successful in his classes.
“He was a bright student,” said Charles Tate, a former BYU professor. “I’ve been watching him for years.”
Tate taught Old World Classics in 1971 when Romney was enrolled in his class. The small class of only five students met in a room in the Harold B. Lee Library where they read and discussed classics such as “The Iliad,” “The Odyssey” and “The Anead of Virgil.”
“I remember more than anything his answer when I went in for the final exam,” Tate said.
The class final was an oral exam. Tate began at one end of the room and asked a student what they’d learned from Homer that semester. The first student was unable to answer so he continued to the next student.
“It went down all the way through and Mitt was the last,” Tate said. “[Mitt] said, ‘Okay Brother Tate, you’ve humbled us. Now ask us something we can answer.’ That was the only time I ever gave an ‘A’ to everyone in the class.”
Mitt continued his legacy in BYU’s Cougar Club, a student-run booster organization that raised money for the athletics department on campus. In 1971, Mitt became president of the all-male club and began implementing ideas and programs that would change the face of the club forever.
“One of the most memorable things he did was through Cougar Club,” said Dane McBride, one of Romney’s close friends both in and out of Cougar Club. He said they usually raised about $10-12 thousand a year but Mitt knew they could do better.
“Mitt became president and said, ‘Guys, we love this school. Let’s leave a real legacy. Let’s put together a program that would raise $100 thousand a year and continue year after year,'” McBride said.
That was during a time when, according to McBride, students at most self-respecting schools like Stanford and Berkeley were rebelling against their administrations. Mitt just wasn’t that way, he said.
“That was quintessential Mitt Romney:” McBride said, “think outside the box, get people on board with a great idea and help them to feel like this is their project.”
Romney led a number of successful projects during his tenure as president of the club and many members felt he made the program successful overall.
“He was born to lead,” said John Toronto, the club secretary at the time. “He took the lead and we had a very successful program.”
Alan Layton, who was then the first vice president of the club, agreed and said there was much to be learned from Romney’s approach to leadership.
“Mitt was a great leader,” Layton said. “I ran against him for president. He was a far stronger president than I would have been and I learned a great deal from him.”
Layton was not tho only one who foresaw Mitt’s potential. In fact, his leadership prowess seemed so obvious to some, it was almost tangible.
“Mitt seemed destined for greatness,” said David Whetten, Mitt’s second vice president. “I don’t think anyone who knew Mitt back then is surprised by any of his achievements after he was at BYU.”
But aside from Mitt’s exemplary leadership, Whetten and others described the Romney’s as being generous, humble and thoughtful.
“When Ann and Mitt were students, they were as poor as all of us,” Layton said.
Layton and Whetten both recalled stories of the Romney’s generosity to others and dedication to family life through simple service and celebration of even small achievements. Whetten said he remembers watching Mitt play football in the front yard with his sons.
“In my generation, they are the most outstanding couple I know in every way: intellectually, family-wise, religiously, friendship-wise, they are exemplary,” Whetten said.
The Romney’s enjoyed their stay at BYU and made many long-lasting friendships before moving to Massachusetts so Mitt could pursue an MBA at Harvard University.
Since that time he has held various leadership and political positions, however none of his old friends are surprised to see him where he is now.
“Those of us who knew him and saw the kind of leadership and vision that he had knew that this kind of guy doesn’t come along every day,” McBride said. “I never said it to him, but I did say it to other people, ‘If one day this guy doesn’t become President of the United States, this country would be cheated.”