Before Bain Capital, the Olympics and a bid to become president of the United States, Mitt Romney displayed exemplary business and leadership skills as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University.
The Cougar Club
Romney did not have a desire to be in student government when he first started at BYU in 1969. After seeing his father’s unsuccessful presidential bid, and his mother’s unsuccessful senate run, it just wasn’t something he wanted to be involved in. However, after receiving encouragement from family, Romney got involved with the Cougar Club, the university booster club. Dane McBride, a former LDS missionary companion of Romney’s and member of the Cougar Club in 1969, said that Romney eventually ran for president of the club, won, and made some big changes.
“When Romney took over the reigns of the Cougar Club (a service club with 30 to 50 members at the time), it was raising $10,000 to $12,000 a year,” McBride said. “Romney said the club should try and raise $100,000.”
“You could see people’s faces blanch a little bit,” McBride said. “They said, ‘You can only do so many luaus a year, and sell so many mumus.’”
Romney had a different idea. He wanted to approach the administration at BYU to see if it was possible to get contact information for everyone that had been at BYU. He also wanted to set up phone banks, call everyone who had matriculated and ask for donations for the club. With the changes that Romney spearheaded, the Cougar Club reached its goal of raising $100,000 in one year.
McBride described this as being one of the highlights of his time in the Cougar Club. He remembered Romney told the members that this was something that when they were “old, 40 years old,” they would be able to remember that as a team, they accomplished something great that would have a long-lasting effect.
“That was one of the neat things about his leadership then and now. There was always a feeling that we were on a team with him,” McBride said. “He was the leader of the team, but he considered them his teammates. I recently visited behind the scenes with some of his leadership team, and it was obvious that they are a team. Mitt is just such a team builder. That’s how he got things done in Massachusetts and in the Olympics. Students that weren’t even members of the Cougar Club that made phone calls felt the team spirit too. It has been a part of his style for a long time.”
At a time in history when riots were common at other universities, Romney wanted something different to be said of BYU. He felt this would happen by rallying together students from across campus to raise the money.
“This is significant, especially for the period of time this took place,” McBride said. “At other universities, serious campus leaders did things like take over the president’s office and ransack it, or blow up the ROTC building. This wasn’t happening at BYU.”
Romney as a student
Romney didn’t spend all his time studying and raising money. He was also married and enjoyed spending time with friends. During the summer, he and his friends would often go to Utah Lake to water ski.
“He is an exceptionally good water skier,” McBride said. “It wasn’t his boat, but he was able to find one for us to go out on. He taught me how to water ski.”
Romney frequented BYU football and basketball games as well as the weekly campus devotionals. “He always really looked forward to hearing the brethren of the Church speak,” McBride said.
Many college students spend their summers selling door to door. Romney was no different. One summer he headed to Michigan to sell cordless microphones, along with McBride and a few others. They went with hopes of making enough money to support themselves through school. Things turned out differently.
“We fell short of our goals, though it wasn’t because we weren’t doing the right things,” McBride said. “The product wasn’t very well made, so we weren’t able to sell it very well.”
The men ended up making a few thousand dollars between them, a much smaller amount than what they anticipated. Luckily, being in Michigan, they were able to visit Romney’s mother-in-law’s house. She made sure they were well fed.
Living on love
Despite being the son of a wealthy governor, Mitt and Ann lived as most newlyweds in college did back then, McBride said.
“I never saw any ostentation or big spending by Ann and Mitt,” McBride said. “His father told him, ‘When you get married, you need to support your family.’ He lived very modestly.”
McBride said that he lived in the same complex as the Romneys and moved into their apartment after they left BYU. For about $75 a month, the apartment had two rooms, a tiny kitchen and a small bathroom.
“They were in a semi-subterranean apartment because it was $10 less a month than the above-ground apartments,” McBride said. “It is probably what most married students would not choose to live in today. It had brown linoleum floors. A lot of the tiles were cracked. The kitchen had barely enough room for a small table to eat breakfast at.”
McBride reflected on how he and his wife often would have dinner with the Romneys. Instead of going out to eat, they would combine what they had in their pantries for a meal. If one of the couples had spaghetti noodles and tomatoes, and the others had hamburger and lettuce, they would eat a spaghetti dinner that night.
Even though Romney was busy being a husband, president of the Cougar Club and a student, he still spent time serving others. As a counselor in his congregation’s bishopric, Romney was in charge of helping with the spiritual and temporal affairs of the members of that ward. For anyone, this would be a difficult task, but McBride said that Romney did a great job, even after the arrival of his firstborn son, Taggart, a year after he and Ann were married. Taggart slept in a crib at the foot of their bed because the apartment wasn’t big enough for anything else.
Being young, married, and in college with a child is not an easy task. Romney didn’t complain. In an interview with the Washington Post, Clayton F. Foulger, Romney’s friend, said that Romney promoted married life.
“I remember Mitt explaining to me the benefits of married life,” Foulger said. “He didn’t have to explain a lot. It was sort of self-evident, but he was appreciative of it.”
How others view Romney
Fellow Cougar Club member Tristan Pico recalls the first time he saw Romney.
“He had dark hair, of course. We all had hair back then. He still does; I do not. Mitt and Ann were together. I just remember being, one, impressed by how striking they were as a couple, and then, two, by how nice they were. They were very cordial when I first met them.”
Even after many years had passed, Pico was surprised that Romney recognized him at an event held in Beverly Hills and stated that Romney was the same person he had known in college.
“There were probably 100 people, and Mitt gave a speech in the back park at night,” Pico said. “He stood on the patio and spoke to this relatively small group of people. And afterwards, I went up and said to hello to him. I said, ‘Mitt, hi, I’m Tristan.’ And he goes ‘Oh, I remember, from Cougar Club!’ I mean, he was just so quick, it was amazing. And then I saw Ann, and I went over and talked to her, and my wife and I spent some time with her. It was a little bit like just stepping into the past because he was the same person, and he and Ann both acted in the same way.”
Pico said that the way Romney is often portrayed doesn’t show an accurate picture of who he really is.
“It seems to be that he is being made out to be citizen plastic, and I think that sounds like a decision somebody made to characterize him as that,” Pico said. “Whenever I’ve heard him speak, he has been sincere and direct, but also cordial and accessible. So I think that characterization of him being anything but that is done more for political reasons than it is to describe him in reality.”
Romney’s personality and leadership skills convinced many of those who knew him from the time he was at BYU to say that he could be president of the United States one day, although he may not have admitted it himself.
“I felt way back then that if … he did not become president of the United States, this country would be cheated,” McBride said. “I told others this, but never him because I knew he would not like such conversation. He had seen both his father and his mother trashed in political campaigns and was not interested in pursuing (politics).”
David Whetten, vice president of the Cougar Club when Romney was club president, described to The Universe how he and others saw Romney.
“Mitt seemed destined for greatness,” said Whetten. “I don’t think anyone who knew Mitt back then is surprised by any of his achievements after he was at BYU.”
McBride said that Romney has always been a “hound for data and information,” that he works with others to learn about other viewpoints and that he has always been that way.
“He studies things out extremely well,” McBride said. “He absorbs it well. He develops ideas and teamwork and counsels. He has a high degree of respect for people. He respects ideas. He wants to hear every side of a disagreement. Developing ideas by counseling together is how he leads.”