Ex-Governor, 81, Says Government Can’t Do It All : Romney an Activist in Voluntarism

Associated Press

The dean of Michigan’s Republicans skipped the inaugural ceremony, but his influence was felt as the presidential mantle was passed from Ronald Reagan to George Bush.

George Romney, the former governor, former Cabinet member and one-time auto executive who made an abortive run for the White House himself two decades ago, decided that he didn’t want to fight the crowds.

“I’ve been going to inaugurals since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated. I’ve been to so many,” the 81-year-old Romney was saying the other day as he relaxed at his home, looking fit and trim.

Romney worked with the Bush transition team to help initiate Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light” program and to shape three volunteer programs that Romney wants to see headed by Peace Corps Director Loret Ruppe.


At Romney’s urging, Bush announced the three programs--which are designed to increase the effectiveness of volunteering--during the campaign.

Sets His Priorities

Romney puts encouraging volunteer work at the top of his list of accomplishments.

“As a result of my experiences, I’ve concluded that the most important thing I can do is to strengthen the whole volunteer aspect of American life,” he says.


More important than reviving the fortunes of American Motors Corp. in the 1960s?

More important than spearheading a citizens’ effort to streamline the state constitution in 1961?

More important than becoming the first Republican to capture the Michigan governor’s chair in 14 years?

Yes, because to Romney government no longer is the solution to America’s problems.

“The most powerful problem-solving force on Earth is the organized, voluntary cooperation of a free people,” he says.

Heads Volunteer Group

Since 1974, Romney has been founding chairman of Volunteer--the National Center, an organization based in Arlington, Va., that is dedicated to encouraging volunteerism.

His goal is to create a Volunteer Center in every community that has a United Way. The centers recruit and place volunteers in local organizations.


“I concluded some years ago we had barely tapped the problem-solving potential of people helping people, as volunteers,” says Romney, who created the nation’s first United Way in Detroit in 1948. “I concluded we had organized the money part of volunteering better than we had organized the people part.”

Nearly every week finds Romney on the road somewhere, trying to add to the 350 Volunteer Centers already established.

Eight-Mile Walks

On this winter’s day, Romney had just returned from an 8-mile walk, a regimen he follows even on Michigan’s coldest days. In the summer, he adds a round of golf at nearby Bloomfield Hills Country Club to his exercise routine.

“I don’t even have arthritis in my little finger,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate, knock on wood.”

His modern, secluded home is on the edge of a private pond that is stocked with goldfish and fringed with pine trees. In his study, he is surrounded by a wall of books, a signed photograph of former President Gerald R. Ford, and Time magazine covers bearing his own picture.

Romney was born July 8, 1907, in Chihuahua, Mexico, where his parents and other Mormons had moved to avoid U.S. laws restricting the practice of polygamy.

He grew up in Idaho and Salt Lake City, where he met his future wife, Lenore, while in high school. He was 17 and she was 15. They were married seven years later.


Their 57-year marriage has produced four children, 22 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Serves as Missionary

Romney attended four colleges, but never graduated. He spent two years as a Mormon missionary in England and Scotland, giving speeches in Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park.

Romney’s first exposure to politics was in 1929 as an aide to Sen. David I. Walsh of Massachusetts in Washington.

After that were stints at ALCOA and the Aluminum Wares Assn.

His first job in Detroit came in 1939, when he was local manager of the Automobile Manufacturers Assn. He later became general manager but left in 1948 to join American Motors, where he eventually became chairman.

At AMC, he oversaw the marketing of the first successful compact economy car on the American market--the Rambler.

“We forced the Big Three into small car production,” he says.

Company’s Stock Soars

The company’s stock went from $5 a share to $90 a share with him at the helm. AMC was purchased by Chrysler Corp. in August, 1987.

“Lee Iacocca has had to close down plants I used to make successful,” Romney says.

Romney used to rent Milwaukee County Stadium to gather AMC employees and their families for a meeting.

“We’d talk to them about what we were confronted with,” Romney recalls, adding that modern corporations and labor unions are guilty of thinking only of wages and profits.

Romney’s first public service came in 1957, when he headed a panel to study problems in the Detroit schools.

In 1959, he created Citizens for Michigan, a bipartisan group that later spearheaded the drive for a constitutional convention to rewrite the state’s constitution because of a deadlock between the governor and Legislature.

Romney’s first candidacy was in 1961, when he ran successfully as a delegate to the constitutional convention.

“We were the first state since World War I to rewrite a whole constitution and have it adopted by a vote of the people,” he says.

Becomes Governor

A year later, he was elected as Michigan’s first Republican governor since 1948.

Romney’s political stock rose rapidly after he won his third term in 1966. He began to eye a run at the presidency.

On a September, 1967, television interview show, Romney startled the nation by saying he had originally supported the war in Vietnam because he had been brainwashed by the military during a tour of the Southeast Asian country.

Five months later, shortly before the New Hampshire primary, Romney withdrew from the race.

“It wasn’t because of my position on Vietnam or anything I said about Vietnam,” he says. “It was because Nelson Rockefeller became a candidate, and there was no way I could get the nomination fighting both Rockefeller and Richard Nixon.”

Nixon later picked Romney to be secretary of housing and urban development, a post he held from 1969 to 1972, when he resigned to return to the private sector.

Returns to Politics

He returned to politics during the last presidential campaign when it appeared strife between the forces of Bush, former television evangelist Pat Robertson and Rep. Jack Kemp of New York would rip the Michigan GOP apart.

“He was quick to stand up and remind people . . . that there was a bigger fight ahead of us in the fall,” says Michigan GOP Chairman Spencer Abraham.