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Leah Sidwell
Southern Virginia University's main hall on campus.
We are delighted to have Mitt Romney as our commencement speaker and the recipient of an honorary doctoral degree. —Paul K. Sybrowsky, SVU president

BUENA VISTA, Va. — Mitt Romney will make one of his first public appearances since losing the 2012 U.S. presidential election last November when he delivers the commencement address at Southern Virginia University on April 27.

“We are delighted to have Mitt Romney as our commencement speaker and the recipient of an honorary doctoral degree,” said Paul K. Sybrowsky, SVU president, who added that Romney “exemplifies what we hope all of our students will become: leader-servants.”

Last spring, in the heat of the presidential campaign, Romney created headlines when he delivered the commencement address at Liberty University in nearby Lynchburg. Liberty is an evangelical Christian school, and there were those at the university who were uncomfortable with the invitation to Romney, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

There will be no such controversy at SVU, a private liberal arts college that embraces the standards and tenets of the LDS Church without being owned or operated by the church. Southern Virginia even has a BYU-like “Code of Honor” by which all students, regardless of their religious affiliation, must abide.

In speaking on SVU’s Buena Vista campus, Romney will be bringing to full circle an interesting element from his own family history. His great uncle, Thomas Cottam Romney, was run out of Buena Vista while serving as an LDS missionary in the area in 1896. According to Thomas’ autobiography, “A Divinity Shapes Our Ends: As Seen in My Life Story,” he and his companion, Elder Joseph Kendall, were having moderate success proselyting in the town when a mob of about 50 men surrounded them and took them by force to the train station.

“The leader informed us that they were going to send us out of the city on the 2 a.m. train to a distant point,” Thomas writes. “I argued with him that the city to which they were sending us was unknown to us and since we were traveling without purse or scrip, the least they could do would be to give us some money with which to get something to eat.

“This called forth an expletive from the leader: ‘D___n it, Romney, you have the gall of a government mule. We are paying your way on the train and now you are asking for more.’ But he had a collection taken up, and while the sum donated was not large, it was sufficient for our needs.”

Mitt Romney will no doubt find his reception in Buena Vista next month to be much more cordial. Sybrowsky said he will also find SVU students to be “among the brightest in the country.”

“Bright students” is also something Romney understands. He holds a bachelor’s degree from BYU (“He was the student speaker at his college graduation exercises some 42 years ago,” Sybrowsky said), as well as master’s and law degrees from Harvard. He also holds five honorary doctorates, with a sixth to come in April during the SVU commencement.