MICHIGAN TRAILS
GENEALOGY and HISTORY
 

George Romney
Governor (1963 - 1969)

 


GEORGE W. ROMNEY, the forty-third governor of Michigan, was born in Chihuahua, Mexico on July 8, 1907. His education was attained at the University of Utah, and at the George Washington University, however he did not graduate.  He established a successful business career, working first with the Aluminum Company of America, and later serving as chairman and president of the American Motors Corporation. Romney entered politics in 1962, securing the Republican gubernatorial nomination. He went on to win the general election by a popular vote on November 6, 1962.  He was reelected to a second term in 1964 and to a third term in 1966. During his tenure, the state's economy progressed; a personal and corporate income tax was sanctioned; civil rights bills were promoted; and a new state constitution was authorized. Also during his term, Romney actively sought, but was unsuccessful in his bid for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. Romney resigned from the governor's office on January 22, 1969. He then served in President Nixon's cabinet as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a position he held until 1972. Governor George W. Romney passed away on July 26, 1995, and was buried in the Fairview Cemetery in Brighton, Michigan.

Sources:

Sobel, Robert, and John Raimo, eds. Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1789-1978, Vol. 2, Westport, Conn.; Meckler Books, 1978. 4 vols.

OBITUARY

Tireless, blunt and true to his beliefs, George Romney never stopped trying to make his visions come true -- for the auto industry, the state of Michigan, his country and humanity.

"I thought he was immortal," Richard Headlee said after learning that his inspiration, political mentor and close friend had died Wednesday morning.

"We are all in his shadow."

An auto executive, governor of Michigan, U.S. cabinet official and, finally, volunteer, Romney once aspired to be president but refused to be consumed by his own ambition.  He described himself as "a citizen first."

Just last year, he devoted his seemingly boundless energy to a son's campaign in Massachusetts for the U.S. Senate.

Romney, who celebrated his 88th birthday July 8, had heart failure while exercising on a treadmill in his Boomfield Hills home, his family siad.

Rigorously fit, Romney boasted in 1988 after completing one of his regular eight-mile walks that, "I don't even have arthritis in my little finger. I've been fortunate -- knock on wood."

His wife, Lenore, said he had been bringing her a rose every morning as she recovered from recent surgery. Wednesday morning it wasn't there, so she went looking for George and found him dead around 9:10 a.m.

"We've been together 64 years," she said. "He kept praying all the time that I would die before him so he cound take care of me. I just adored him."

Son Scott, an attorney in Detroit, spoke for family members who gathered at the Romney home.

"To some he is known as governor," the son said.  "To us, he was the most wonderful husband in the world, an adoring father, grandfather and great-grandfather."

Tuesday night, Romney drove himself to a dinner in Detroit for his nonpartisan volunteer Leadership Coalition, an outgrowth of his long advocacy of volunteerism and community involvement.

As a national coordinator of volunteer programs under President George Bush, Romney declared that "the most powerful problem-solving force on earth is the organized, voluntary cooperation of a free people."

Janet Lawson of the volunteer coalition staff was with Romney ay Tuesday's dinner.

"He had a great vision for corporate volunteerism," she said. "He looked younger and healthier last night than ever. He gave his usual, most important line, 'Money helps, but people solve problems.'"

''NEVER SEE THE LIKE OF HIM AGAIN;'

And Romney introduced himself in his usual way, she said: "George Romney, volunteer, never former governor or CEO."

"We'll never have the like of him again," said Jerry Roe of Lansing, who chaired the Michigan GOP when Romney was governor. "He had the most human energy of any many I've ever known. He had the ability to lead. He could knock heads together and get people to do things."

"He really believed that one person could make a difference," said Suzy Heintz, the current state GOP chair, who started in politics as a "Romney Girl" in his 1962 campaign for governor.

Gov. John Engler recalled the advice Romney gave him on Jan. 1, 1991, just before Engler was sworn in for his first term.

"He said to be bold," Engler said. "I will never forget his words because that is the motto he lived and governed by."

As president of American Motors Corp. in the late 1950s, Romney boldly challenged the auto industry's belief that bigger was better, committing AMC to smaller, cheaper cars, not "gas-guzzling dinosaurs."

He boldly formed Citizens for Michigan in 1959 and led the effort to convene the convention which drafted the state Constitution that remains in effect today.

From that springboard, Romney ran for governor in 1962, boldly declaring that he was a Republican candidate but "a citizen first" and leaving the party identification off his campaign material.

As governor, Romney pushed boldly for enactment of the first state income tax in 1967, solidifying shaky state finances for years to come. That same year, urging more federal aid to cities after the disastrous Detroit riot, Romney warned that "there's a tinder in the cities that will make Vietnam look like child's play."

When he became a presidential candidate later that year, Romney called for an honorable end to the Vietnam War, boldly admitting he'd been "brainwashed" by the military into earlier thinking that the war was a just cause. He was the first national political figure to question the war, and challenge Pentagon reports about the scale of the U.S. effort.

His "brainwashed" remark caused Romney's presidential stock to fall. Romney knew it, and quit the race early in 1968. He had flared briefly as a GOP favorite, but never really settled into a seat on the national stage.

Then-governor James Rhodes of Ohio remarked then that "watching George Romney run for the presidency was like watching a duck try to make love to a football."

The following year, Romney accepted a job in Richard Nixon's cabinet as secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Washington didn't change Romney's style.  At HUD, he tangled with his own administration over his efforts to break down racial barriers in housing.

Romney left Washington in 1972, disillusioned with Nixon's politics. When Watergate erupted, he said he would have quit HUD sooner had he known the truth about Nixon.

HIS EARLY LIFE

George Wilken Romney was born in 1907 in a Mormon colony in Chihuahua, Mexico. As a boy, he moved with his family throughout the Southwest. As a young man, he was a Mormon missionary in England.

While attending George Washington University, Romney took a job as a tariff specialist for then-U.S. Sen. David Walsh, D-Mass.  He stayed in Washington as a lobbyist, then moved to Detroit in 1939 to manage the Automotive Manufacturers Association.

In 1946, Romney joined Nash-Kelvinator Corp., the forerunner of AMC, and in 1954, he became AMC president. AMC's Romney-inspired Rambler is credited with pushing the Big Three auto companies into compacts such as the Ford Falcon, Chevrolet Corvair and Dodge Dart.

"He is credited with the term 'compact car,' said Bob Casey, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.

Romney held the AMC job while becoming a major figure in Michigan politics through the tortuous process of drafting a new state constitution. Towards the end of the two-year constitutional convention, he announced his candidacy for governor, going on to defeat incumbent Democrat John Swainson.

When he was elected to his third term in 1966, Romney was the state's first governor to win the four-year term called for in the state constitution he had helped write.

While the "brainwashing" comment is widely regarded as the death knell of his presidential hopes, Romney's national ambitions were dogged on several other fronts.

He had refused to endorse conservative Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for president in 1964, angering the GOP right flank.  Questions were raised about his birthplace, because the U.S. Constitution requires the president to be "a natural born citizen."

And his faith in the Mormon church, which at the time barred blacks from the priesthood, caused some apprehension about his civil-rights beliefs.

He cast aside racial criticism in one speech, saying, "We must overcome the all-too-human distrust and dislike of those who are different from ourselves. This is the battle that must be won in heart-to-heart combat."

WITH REGAL VIGOR

Back in Michigan after his years at HUD, Romney became a vigorous, outspoken campaigner for Republicans./ He was the old Lion King of the state GOP, with his distinctive white mane, booming voice and outspoken opinions.

Romney called Don Riegle "unstable" during Riegle's first Senate campaign, after Riegle had switched to the Democrats from the GOP.

He said the Equal Rights Amendment had attracted "lesbians, homosexuals and moral perverts," prompting feminist author Gloria Steinem to brand him "Michigan's Ayatollah."

Romney's successor, Gov. William Milliken, ignited another controversy when he named Romney to the Wayne State University Board of Governors, in place of a black woman who had died in a car crash.  Romney refused to resign, despite pressure from women and  minorities, serving on the board until 1984.

Milliken said Wednesday that Romney "was one of the finest public servants this state has ever known."

Romney will lie in state in the rotunda of the state Capitol in Lansing from 2 to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Engler ordered all flags on state building lowered to half staff.

In additon to wife Lenore and son Scott, Romney is survived by his son Mitt of Boston and daughters Jane Romney of Los Angeles and Lynn Keenan of Bloomfield Hills, 23 grandchildren and 33 great grandchildren.

Published in Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) 27 Jul 1995

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