New Book Draws Fresh Attention to Romney's Southeast Michigan Roots
Cranbrook alumni from Class of '65 recall clever prankster with senior year romance that endures.
Mitt Romney comes across as a no-nonsense former governor and corporate leader on TV and at campaign rallies, which he'll hold in this area soon during primary month.
Those who knew him as a southeast Michigan teen, by contrast, recall an occasionally mischievous prep school prankster. A new book has examples of Romney the rascal.
"I am surprised when I read about him being stiff and humorless," Cranbrook School classmate Graham McDonald told the authors of The Real Romney, published this month. "That is the opposite image I have of him. He was almost slapstick to a fault."
Gregg Dearth of Guilford, CT, a fellow Class of '65 graduate reached by Patch, recalls buying large ice blocks from a gas station for nighttime rides on a closed golf course's slopes. "I remember going 'cubing' on hot summer nights," with Romney, said Dearth, a former Bloomfield Hills resident who contributes to Romney's campaign. Romney, McDonald and others placed towels atop the blocks and used them as lawn sleds, Dearth said.
Oakland roots are worth more than curiosity value as the Republican presidential nomination campaign moves to Michigan for a Feb. 28 primary, the first in a Midwestern industrial state.
"The Romney name still has cache in Michigan," says veteran politics analyst Steve Mitchell of West Bloomfield, who heads Mitchell Research and Communications, a political polling-consulting firm. "He is a 'favorite son' here."
Metro Detroit touchstones
Though he didn’t attend college in Michigan and hasn't lived here full time since graduating from the all-boys Cranbrook in 1965, the candidate has a string of local touchstones. He was born in Detroit as Willard Mitt Romney, grew up in Bloomfield Hills, married a schoolmate from that city, is the son of a popular ex-governor (George Romney, 1963-69) and mother (Lenore) who ran for U.S. Senate in 1970. His older brother, Scott, is a prominent Detroit attorney.
He carried his party's last presidential primary in Michigan, helped by sentimental support. "The fact he was able to win a big victory – 38 percent to 30 percent over John McCain – in 2008 demonstrates how strong he is in Michigan," Mitchell says. (McCain went on to become the nominee.)
"Using his connection through his Michigan roots would be a very smart strategy, one they used four years ago and one they will likely use in 2012," adds the pollster.
About a month before the state's primary, the book by Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman – published Jan. 17 – feeds national interest in Romney's early background. His prep school recently posted Romney-related materials and media FAQs at a new area of its website in anticipation of election-year inquiries. The Globe authors and Patch so far have been the only ones to ask for vintage photos and documents, says Clay Matthews, director of communications for Cranbrook Schools.
Father, son graduation speeches
Postings include Gov. George Romney's commencement address to his son's Class of '65, as well as one 30 years later by Mitt Romney.
"I thought that as a Cranbrook graduate, I had all the answers," the younger Romney told teens who sat where he had. In addition to saying he had learned humility, the businessman – who then was a managing director of the Bain Capital investment firm – advised the Class of '95 not "to sit on the sidelines in the great battle for justice, equality of opportunity, decency and freedom."
He began at Brookside as a seventh-grader in 1959, when he was 12. Two years later he moved on to the Cranbrook upper school on the same 315-acre campus just off Woodward on Lone Pine Road.
He stayed at the family's nearby home during his first three years, then moved on campus when his father began serving as governor in 1963 and his parents spent most time in Lansing. His older brother Scott also graduated from Cranbrook and his two older sisters, Lynn and Jane, are alumnae of the all-girls Kingswood School.
Romney was a cheerleader, helped manage the ice hockey team and ran on the cross-country team as a senior. Activities listed in Brook, the yearbook he worked on as an assistant editor, also include Glee Club, Pre-Med Club, Church Cabinet, American Field Service, World Affairs Seminar and Homecoming Committee chair.
"Mitt was not a country club guy," according to Dearth, whose family lived about a mile from the Romneys. The candidate's former running buddy, who says "the gang" sometimes teased Romney by using his actual first name –Willard.
Dearth, co-owner of a computer business with two Connecticut locations, plans to pick up the new book. He hasn't seen his ex-neighbor since their 40th class reunion in 2005, and occasionally relays messages to him through Rod Davies, a 1965 graduate who is Romney's brother-in-law.
Romney received a Distinguished Alumni Award at the 2005 event, his last campus visit. In an acceptance speech, he thanked classmates for attending despite "my many weaknesses and occasionally obnoxious outbursts during my many years with them," according to an article in the Boston Globe's access-fee archive.
That may have been a reference to practical jokes. Amid the mirthfulness, friends never saw Romney go against the guidelines of his Mormon faith.
"I was at numerous social events where I often was the one providing the illicit beverages," Dearth says, "but don't recall ever seeing Mitt partake. . . . We were all well aware that his father was the governor and any transgressions by Mitt would reflect badly on his father."
'Dining' on Woodward median
One anecdote in the just-released book describes how Romney "staged an elaborate formal dinner in the median strip" of nearby Woodward Avenue. For another stunt, the future presidential candidate wore a police-style uniform and stuck a flashing red light atop his car so he could stop two friends -- who were in on the plan -- and pretend to arrest them for having beer, leaving their bewildered dates in the car.
"It was a terrible thing to do," the authors quote participant Graham ("Butch") McDonald as saying. "We came back shortly. We didn't leave damsels in distress."
The Massachusetts reporters note that "the idea of the governor's son impersonating a police officer is startling." New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd mentions the incident in a Jan. 25 column headlined "Mitt, Is This Wit?"
But a member of "the gang," John French, told a Boston Globe writer at the 2005 reunion: "When he pulled a prank on you, you were laughing as hard as anybody else. Nothing ever was malicious. . . . He was well thought of and admired."
Romney had a steady date during his last three months as a Cranbrook senior. He and his wife of 42 years have known each other since elementary school, when she was Ann Lois Davies. She graduated in 1967 from Kingswood. Her father, Welsh immigrant Edward R. Davies, headed a successful marine equipment manufacturer and served as part-time mayor of Bloomfield Hills.
Romney, 64, tells audiences how he cleverly made his childhood schoolmate "my sweetheart" after they were reintroduced a March 1965 party at a friend's home. He persuaded her date to let him drive her home because he lived closer, according to an account this month in The Telegraph, a London newspaper. "We've been going steady ever since," Romney is quoted as saying.
Their first date was at a movie, The Sound of Music, she told the Associated Press in 2007. Another memory involves nighttime sliding on ice blocks at a closed golf course. "He was just fun, fun, fun to be with in high school," she's quoted as saying.
She taught him to water-ski and he taught her snow skiing, The Real Romney says. Ann Davies attended Cranbrook's senior prom with the governor's son and they married nearly four years later when he was 22 and she was 19. Their 300-person reception was at Bloomfield Hills Country Club. Mrs. Romney is 62 now.
Neither Romney visited the campus while in Oakland County for the presidential debate at Oakland University in November. No Romney rally or informal visit to Cranbrook is scheduled amid February's campaigning in Michigan either, Matthews says, adding: "We're always happy to have alumni return to campus."
At his online media resource, a statement says: "It would certainly be a sense of enormous pride to have one of our alumni elected to the highest office in the land."