Mitt Romney: the beginning

Published: Sunday, July 1 2007 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Romney family in 1959: 12-year-old Mitt sits in front of his parents, George and Lenore.

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BERNOS-BEAULAC, France — By the time he saw the Mercedes barreling into his lane, there was nothing Mitt Romney could do.

He was 21, buoyed by a recent promotion, a young man finally on his way. Two years of getting doors slammed in his face as an LDS missionary in France had tested him as nothing before in his privileged life, revealing a drive and seriousness that had been absent during his breezy childhood. Now he was the assistant to the president, a top job in the French mission, and behind the wheel of a luxury Citroen packed with church officials visiting congregations in southern France.

He knew these roads were dangerous. That very afternoon in June 1968, on the way from Pau to Bordeaux, he had pulled over to remove a roof rack lying in the middle of the road, a remnant of an earlier accident.

His own crash was swift and brutal. The Mercedes, driven southbound by a Catholic priest, passed a truck, missed a curve and shot into the northbound lane at a high rate of speed.

"It happened so quickly that, as I recall, there was no braking and no honking, it was like immediate," Romney said in a recent interview. "I remember sort of being hood-to-hood. And then pretty much the next thing I recall was waking up in the hospital."

Trapped between the steering column and the driver's-side door, Romney lost consciousness. The president of the mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, H. Duane Anderson, was seriously injured on the other side.

Anderson's wife, Leola, who had been sitting between them, bore the brunt of the impact. Crushed in the wreckage, she survived long enough to speak her dying words in an ambulance to a Frenchwoman who couldn't understand what she was saying.

Sister Anderson, as she was called within the small world of Mormons in France, was a beloved den mother to the 200 missionaries. Her husband was physically and emotionally broken and returned to the United States to bury his wife and salve his wounds.

Romney responded differently. Since birth, his parents had invested great ambition in their youngest child. Yet his sheltered life had given him few opportunities to show himself worthy of such expectations. Now, with tragedy in the French mission, and chaos in the late 1960s air, Romney emerged as a leader. In President Anderson's absence, the 21-year-old helped direct the mission.

He launched an effort to accelerate the conversions of French people, complete with more ambitious numerical goals. And he kept his anguish to himself.

"There's nothing like hard work and time to heal the pain and sorrow of a tragic loss," Romney said. "What we do with our time is not for frivolity, but for meaning."

'Miracle' birth

For Mitt Romney, life began with high drama.

On March 13, 1947, George Romney, a rising star in the auto industry who was often described as a man in a hurry, took time out to write to the relatives and colleagues he'd missed during the previous day's blizzard of telegrams and phone calls.

"Dear Folks," Romney wrote on the letterhead of the Automobile Manufacturers Association, where he served as general manager, "Well, by now most of you have had the really big news, but for those who haven't, Willard Mitt Romney arrived at Ten AM March 12." The new baby was not the first but rather the fourth born to Romney and his wife, Lenore. Yet as the paragraphs flowed, and Romney detailed how precarious his wife's pregnancy had been, it became clear there was a special level of wonderment embedded in this announcement, in this birth.

"A couple of years ago, the Doctor told Lenore that her condition would not permit her to have another child and that she would have to undergo a major operation," Romney wrote. "However, she had a lot of faith."

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