Attending Brigham Young University was not always in young Mitt Romney’s plans.
He had finished a year at Stanford in 1966 when he accepted a mission call to France for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He planned to return to Stanford when he finished his missionary service.
But that plan changed when high school sweetheart Ann Davies sent him a letter while he was still in France.
Dane McBride, one of Romney’s missionary companions in Paris, said while some people couldn’t get their mind off of their girl, Romney knew how to be deeply in love with Ann but still be completely focused on mission work. But when a letter arrived from Ann, informing Romney she was dating someone else, he was devastated.
“All he could do was send letters, and by the time they got to her, everything could have changed,” McBride said. “He was just beside himself and wanted to show his devotion somehow.”
A picture of Romney, the missionary, published recently in Time shows him lying by a message he wrote in the sand — a heart with the words “I Love Ann.” Romney eventually got a letter from her. Ann declared her love for Romney and told him he didn’t need to worry — he was the one she wanted to be with forever.
“It had been raining that day, and the sun came out after he read that letter,” McBride said. “The old Mitt was back.”
This boost gave Mitt a renewed sense of purpose, and he was able to fulfill his duties as assistant to the mission president. This was at a time of great tragedy for missionaries in France. Romney had been driving a car carrying Duane Anderson, his mission president, and the mission president’s wife, Leona, along a windy, country road when a car driven by Catholic priest crossed over the line, hitting Romney and the Andersons head on. The mission president was severely injured and his wife was killed. Romney was knocked unconscious, and even had the words “Il est mort,” or “he is dead” mistakenly written on his passport by a French policeman who was at the scene, according to multiple articles written about the accident.
Romney recounted in an interview with the Boston Globe how quickly the accident happened.
“We were all talking about how dangerous the French highways were,” Romney said. “Literally as we were having that conversation, boom, we were hit. It happened so quickly, there was no braking and no honking.”
Although Romney sustained a concussion, a broken arm and emotional trauma, he took charge of the mission while the mission president was incapacitated. The missionaries were deeply shaken by the accident and needed someone to boost morale and encourage them. Romney was that person.
“For young missionaries, it was really so hard because they thought of her as a mother figure,” McBride said of the mission president’s wife. “Her death was very deeply felt by the missionaries.”
Elder Howard W. Hunter, member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the time, recommended Romney read the book “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill and help all the missionaries apply its principles to their work. McBride said the book was about developing success and teamwork.
“Mitt and I read that book together, but he read it better than I did,” McBride said. “This book helped bring morale and helped us reach our mission goals.”
Those goals had been steadily declining after Leona Anderson’s death. Riots in France at the time also made missionary work hard. Instead of lowering the goals even more, Romney decided to do just the opposite.
“Mitt knew that decreasing the goals was the wrong thing to do,” McBride said. “He raised it to 200 instead. That’s how you get people to change actions, by inspiring change.”
In an attempt to encourage the other missionaries, Romney helped organize a missionary-wide talent show around Christmastime at zone conference. McBride said this was a very memorable event that involved many of the missionaries. McBride, Romney and a few other missionaries got together and sang 15 made-up songs, mostly relating to jokes within the mission.
“One song was about four elders in one apartment in the city of Angoulme,” McBride said. “Several weeks went by with none of them receiving a check from home, which check was all that they lived on. They were the only missionaries in that city. We made up a song about that to the tune of We Three Kings, and everyone had a good laugh. When I was visiting with Mitt before the South Carolina primary, I asked him if he remembered those songs, and he broke into that particular song. We got everybody laughing that night. It showed that Mitt would do what it took to raise the morale. He made things fun, and that is one of his great leadership skills — you can have fun and work hard at the same time.”
The song went like this:
We Elders of Angouleme are
Broke, hungry and no check from afar
Eating solely ravioli
Out of a mason jar
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?
Many Romney critics have pinned him as out-of-touch and unemotional. Acquaintances and those close to him say this couldn’t be further from the truth.
On their mission together, McBride recalls the couple that helped manage the apartment complex they lived in. To put it simply, this couple didn’t like Americans — especially Mormons. McBride and Romney were spat on, yelled at and made the object of snide remarks. While it would have been easy to fight back, McBride said Romney wasn’t about to stoop to that level.
“(Romney) decided he wanted to win them over, not as converts, but friends,” McBride said. “We would try to return kindness anytime we could. We tried to be aware of the things they liked. At times, it was exhausting.”
Over time, the couple began to soften toward the young missionaries.
“Soon they started being kinder, and became our great friends,” McBride said. “They didn’t have any children and came to think of us as their sons. They wanted us to call them mama and papa. By the time Mitt was transferred, the woman wept.”
McBride explained that because of the warmth of Romney’s personality, he has the ability to win over those who have been his enemies. He said that the way he is often portrayed is very inaccurate.
“Mitt has always had deep personal convictions,” McBride concluded. “Opposition tries to show him as core-less and heartless — that couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
Regardless of political affiliation, students at BYU have a connection to Romney. At one time, he was just like any student — he was in love, wanted to provide for his family, all while leaving his mark on the school. He helped raise money for the school, and then, more than 20 years later, donated his entire inheritance from his father to help fund scholarships for the Marriott School of Management’s Institute of Public Management.
Although his time at BYU has long passed, the experiences he had have left a lasting mark on the man he has become today.
Contributing: Ee Chien Chua and Lindsey Larson