Romney, George Wilcken

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Romney, George Wilcken

(b. 8 July 1907 in Colonia Dublan, Chihuahua, Mexico; d. 26 July 1995 in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan), three-term Republican governor of Michigan and businessperson whose auto industry innovations rescued American Motors Corporation from bankruptcy and began a national trend toward compact cars.

Romney was only five years of age when Mexican rebels forced his family and other Mormon colonists from their homes in Chihuahua, Mexico. His parents, Gaskell Romney, a carpenter and contractor, and Anna Pratt, moved their family of seven children, six sons and one daughter, five times before settling permanently in Salt Lake City, Utah, in the fall of 1921. Romney later worked in his father’s construction business and attended Roosevelt Junior High School. From 1922 to 1926 he attended Latter-day Saints University, a high school and junior college. During this time Romney met Lenore LaFount, and they married on 2 July 1931 after a long and complicated courtship. They had four children. Following his graduation from Latter-day Saints University, Romney served two years as a missionary in Great Britain. He then returned to Salt Lake City and briefly attended the University of Utah.

In 1929 Romney moved to Washington, D.C., with his brother Miles Romney in part to attend George Washington University but largely to be near Lenore, whose family had moved there while he was abroad. He enrolled in night classes and worked as a tariff specialist for the Democratic senator David I. Walsh of Massachusetts. Although he had planned to attend the Harvard School of Business Administration, Romney in 1930 joined the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) as a salesman in Los Angeles. In 1932 he became Alcoa’s representative in Washington. He also served as the Washington representative of the Aluminum Wares Association, a position that, through informal contact with Pyke Johnson, the executive vice president and general manager of the Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (AMA), led Romney into the automotive industry.

Some of Romney’s Washington friends found him naive in 1939, but Johnson saw a man who was “hard-headed …honest …loyal,” a man with “good ideas… [who] could work with others and get a job done.” In that year Johnson hired Romney to manage the AMA’s Detroit office. In 1942 Romney became the association’s general manager, and between 1942 and 1946 he oversaw the industry’s changeover from civilian to military vehicles. As managing director for the Automotive Council for War Production, Romney orchestrated the cooperative and coordinated the efforts of all the companies involved in the automotive industry. He also helped form the Detroit Victory Council, which assisted workers with housing, transportation, and other home front problems.

In 1948, at the invitation of the chairman, George Mason, Romney joined Nash-Kelvinator as Mason’s special assistant. The offer attracted Romney because it allowed him to learn the “inside” of automobile manufacturing from Mason, who had been employed in the industry since 1913. Romney was elected vice president in 1950 and executive vice president and director in 1953. Nash-Kelvinator merged with the Hudson Motor Car Company in 1954, forming the American Motors Corporation. When Mason died shortly after the merger, Romney was elected to succeed Mason as chairman, president, and general manager of the new corporation.

Under Mason’s leadership Nash had begun experimenting with small, economical passenger cars, an effort Romney wholeheartedly endorsed and continued to the point of discontinuing all models but the Rambler. In 1957 Romney pitted the “compact” of American Motors against the “gas-guzzling dinosaurs” of the Big Three automakers and “exuded so much enthusiasm and confidence” that members of the newly formed policy committee “hardly realized the impossible odds” they were up against. In debt from its inception, American Motors first began to make money in 1958, and in 1959 the company saw a profit of more than $60 million.

With American Motors on its feet, Romney began turning his attention to Michigan’s political and economic struggles. Inspired by the success of the Detroit Citizens Advisory Council on School Needs, which he had chaired in 1957–1958, Romney organized Citizens for Michigan, a nonpartisan initiative that ultimately led to Michigan’s 1962 constitutional convention and to Romney’s entrance in the 1962 gubernatorial race. Romney was shunned by Republican Party conservatives, but his “liberal” stand on civil rights, taxation, and social welfare appealed to moderates in both parties. He won by 78,000 votes over the incumbent John B. Swainson to become Michigan’s first Republican governor in fourteen years.

Romney was reelected in 1964 and 1966 and throughout his three terms he focused on getting Michigan out of its “sorry and tangled mess,” brought on, he asserted, by “selfish and partisan” politics. In 1963 voters approved a new state constitution. Michigan’s economy was improving, and unemployment was decreasing. Romney worked successfully with a Democratic legislature in 1964–1965, and by 1966 he had so gained the respect of the Republican Party that his landslide victory brought with it one Republican senator and five Republican representatives.

In the national polls and media Romney was hailed as a “winner” and the Republicans’ “best chance” to defeat President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. On 18 November 1967 Romney announced his candidacy for president. He campaigned vigorously but dropped out of the race in February 1968, two weeks before the New Hampshire primary. Richard Nixon easily won the Republican nomination for the nation’s highest office.

Named secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in President Nixon’s cabinet in 1969, Romney left that post in 1972 to return to private life, where he felt he could more effectively address social issues. In 1974 he joined the National Center for Voluntary Action as chairman of the board. He briefly returned to politics in 1994 to campaign on behalf of his son Mitt Romney, who ran unsuccessfully against the Massachusetts senator Edward M. Kennedy for that U.S. Senate seat.

Romney remained active throughout his life, regularly enjoying swimming, dancing, and early morning golf. A tall, robust, energetic, and athletic man, he was a capable handyman, sportsman, gardener, and landscape designer. He died of a heart attack at the age of eighty-eight while exercising at his home in Bloomfield Hills.

A devout Mormon, Romney never let professional pressures intrude on either his family life or his religious convictions. Consequently, his deeply held views on family, individual responsibility, integrity, and hard work were often deemed “corny” and simplistic. Yet his gubernatorial performance won statewide approval. He served on the advisory boards and committees of more than a dozen organizations; received state and national awards and citations from numerous business, religious, educational, charitable, and civic groups; and was granted thirteen honorary degrees. In 1996 the Points of Light Foundation established the Romney Volunteer Center Excellence Award to honor Romney’s commitment to community service in every aspect of society. As the biographer Clark R. Mollenhoff concluded, Romney was “a man most of us would like to have as a friend or neighbor … a man who could be trusted with our most precious possessions … a man easy to follow …and a man always willing to carry his share of the load.”

Romney’s personal and gubernatorial papers, including visual and audio materials, are in the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. The Michigan Library and Historical Center in Lansing holds proclamations and constitutional convention records. Tom Mahoney, The Story of George Romney: Builder, Salesman, Crusader (1960), profiles Romney’s business successes. Three biographies trace Romney’s early life through his gubernatorial career: D. Duane Angel, Romney: A Political Biography (1967); George T. Harris, Romney’s Way: A Man and an Idea (1967); and Clark R. Mollenhoff, George Romney: Mormon in Politics (1968). Obituaries are in the New York Times, Detroit News, and Washington Post (all 27 July 1995).

Marilyn Mclaughlin