GEORGE ROMNEY: ROCK-SOLID CHARACTER AND HEART OF GOLD SHOWED IN EVERY FACET OF `CITIZEN'S' LIFE.

Published: Sunday, Aug. 20 1995 12:00 a.m. MDT

Whenever George W. Romney described his own status, he called himself merely a "citizen," or more often, a "volunteer" instead of Michigan's former governor, an automotive industrialist, an ex-U.S. Cabinet officer and one-time presidential candidate. But others had a different word when they talked about him. The word was "integrity."

When Romney died last month at age 88, he was lauded in Utah because of his Mormon roots and his unswerving commitment to his religion, as well as his many accomplishments in an extraordinary life. But how did others view him outside the LDS community?Judging from stories and columns in other parts of the country, most heavily featured in Detroit newspapers, those who knew Romney the best also had the highest respect for him as a principled human being and someone who occasionally was ahead of his time in business and politics.

Inevitably, in the rough and tumble world of politics, Romney faced controversy, disagreement and political and ideological clashes. Yet his rock-solid character always showed through.

Joe H. Stroud, a columnist for The Detroit News and Free Press, wrote in a front page article that Romney was "a man of such persistent principle, such passion for the public good and such commitment to community that few even of his enemies doubted that this was a genuinely virtuous man."

Stroud added that "Where some politicians get up in the morning and ask what the polls say, George Romney seemed to get up and ask what the community needed, and to go about trying to do what he thought was right."

There was no question about his religious faith, although some viewed him as rather strait-laced. He didn't drink, refused to campaign on Sunday, went to church each week.

As Charlie Cain, Lansing bureau chief of The Detroit News noted, Romney was unusual among mainstream politicians because of his religiosity. "He didn't go to church to provide a photo opportunity, but rather used his religion as a compass to chart his public life. He didn't hide his faith but didn't flaunt it, either." William Ballenger, a former Republican state senator, said Romney "was the lving embodiment of his faith without being sanctimonious."

The public perception of Romney was was not of a dour, rigid personality. A hard-driving, enthusiastic person with a booming voice and quick smile, he exhibited passion and intensity - two more words frequently used to describe Romney's characteristics.

In his 64-year marriage to his wife, Lenore, he was an unabashed and unfailing romantic, giving her a single red rose virtually every day and leaving tender love notes scattered around the house.

George Weeks, a columnist with The Detroit News, described how Romney, while serving as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, obtained permission from the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., to snip a rose from its garden every morning that the Romneys were in town. "What a guy," Weeks wrote in admiration.

As a young man, Romney served an LDS mission in England and then enrolled at George Washington University. While a student he got his first taste of politics by working as a tariff specialist for a Democratic U.S. senator and later was a lobbyist in Washington before moving to Detroit in 1939 to manage the Automobile Manufacturers Association.

It was in Detroit where he grew into what Detroit Free Press staff writers Ron Dzwonkowski and Angela Tuck described as a "man who often seemed larger than life." He joined Nash-Kelvinator, the fore-runner of American Motors Corp., in 1946 and became president of the firm in 1954.

Romney supervised introduction of the Rambler, which he described as a "compact car," the first use of that term, and challenged the prevailing bigger-is-better philosophy of Detroit. He won the admiration of the American public for taking on the automotive giants and their "gas guzzling dinosaurs."

The major auto producers shrugged him off, but they stopped laughing when AMC began making big profits. Ford eventually was forced to produce its own compact car to meet the competition.

James V. Higgins, assistant national editor of The Detroit News, said that Romney presided "over a flood of innovations - unibody construction, the first widespread use of seat belts and reclining seats. But perhaps the most important was a new way of dealing with union employees.

"Looking for ways to make production lines more efficient, Romney approved what AMC called a `progress sharing plan' - blue-collar workers would share in corporate profits through grants of stock. It took the Big Three (Ford, General Motors, Chrysler) 20 years to catch up," Higgins said.

Unfortunately, Romney's lesson about smaller cars was not learned by Detroit. When he left AMC to enter politics, even his own company went back to the traditional bigger is better concept - and ultimately failed. Eventually, when the oil crisis erupted in the 1970s, Detroit was unprepared and small Japanese autos captured much of the U.S. market.

Lee Iacocca, former chairman of Chrysler Corp., said that "George was a man whose vision, especially in the production of small economy cars, placed him far ahead of his time. He commanded great respect - certainly from me."

Romney's entry into politics was gradual, growing out of his efforts as a civic crusader. He led a citizens' study of the state's schools and founded Citizens for Michigan, a grassroots organization that ultimately led to streamlining the antiquated Michigan constitution.

From this springboard, Romney ran for governor in 1962 as a Republican in a Democrat-dominated and heavily unionized state. Against all expectations, he won and launched a GOP domination of the Michigan governorship that lasted for decades. All in all, he was elected three times and the margin of victory was greater each election.

Yet it is hard to put a label on Romney the politician. He wasn't into ideology and wasn't an enemy of government. Pragmatic problem solving was his approach. As Romney himself said, he was a "citizen first," rather than a politician. He was, as the Livonia, Mich., Observer declared, "A liberal in his treatment of fellow humans. A conservative with taxpayers' money. A leader rather than a manipulator."

His success as governor was enormous. Martha Griffiths, former Michigan lieutenant governor and Democratic member of Congress, said that "For a person who really had no previous experience, he really was a great politician. George Romney and his family were the sweetest family in the governor's mansion."

Peter Luke, a columnist with the Ann Arbor News, noted that "More than 30 years ago, when other leaders were unwilling to confront virulent racism not only in the South, but in their own Northern back yards, George Romney did just that." This made his tenure as governor "one of Michigan's proudest moments."

Judge Damon Keith, who was appointed to the state's new Civil Rights Commission under Romney and now a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, said that "Gov. Romney always took positions of integrity and conscience. That's the way he lived his life."

Romney rode his huge state popularity into a presidential bid in 1968 but dropped out after his famous gaffe in a radio interview in which he said he had been "brainwashed" by the military regarding Vietnam. The ridicule caused by that remark was too much to overcome, but Romney was never bitter about the event. Richard Nixon went on to win the presidency.

But that incident is now viewed differently. The Detroit Free Press acknowledged that Romney was the "first national political figure to question the war and to challenge Pentagon reports about the scale of U.S. efforts." As the Livonia Observer put it, "Time has shown he was quicker than most to wise up."

Joe Stroud echoed the statements of several Michigan - and national - commentators when he wrote that he "could not help but wonder what might have happened had that steel-jawed, golden-hearted man of the community been better able to project onto a national stage. You can be sure there would have been no Watergate."

Romney was appointed secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Nixon's Cabinet and his brash, open style kept him in the middle of the news. But he resigned in 1972, disillusioned with Nixon's politics.

From that point on, he threw himself into volunteer work, organizing a nonpartisan Volunteer Leadership Coalition and later serving as national coordinator of volunteer programs under President George Bush.

Romney traveled the country almost up to the day of his death, urging volunteer efforts to solve America's problems. "He really believed that one person could make a difference," said Suzy Heintz, Michigan state GOP chairman. That was a belief illustrated by his own life.

Nearly every commentator since Romney's death has closed with the same observation: America needs more people like George Romney and his example is worth studying and following.

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