From prankster to politician, Romney deemed a class act
At 40th reunion, friends recall his drive and humor
BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. -- High school classmate Gregg Dearth remembers Mitt Romney as ''one of the all-time great guys in high school," a prankster who managed to make everyone feel comfortable at the elite Cranbrook School.
But high school reunions are an accounting of how people have done -- and how they look. So when his fit-looking old chum bounded into a sweltering auditorium here yesterday to accept a ''Distinguished Alumni" award, the gray-haired Dearth couldn't completely conceal his envy at Romney's genetic good fortune.
''He was certainly a leader in his class," Dearth remarked. ''You'd swear he's dying his hair, though."
Romney came to his 40th high school reunion with an impressive list of accomplishments: He earned millions as a corporate executive, ran the Salt Lake City Olympics, and was elected governor of Massachusetts. Now, he's considering a run for president, opening up every aspect of his past to scrutiny. Nearly everything Romney did and said here four decades ago will be dissected and analyzed for clues as to who he really is.
''I don't think you feel any different inside, by virtue of what you've done in your life," Romney, now 58, said in an interview with the Globe last week. ''I feel like the same person I was at that point."
During Romney's era, Cranbrook was a boys' school that was considered the Midwest's answer to Andover and Exeter. Nearly all its students were white, and many hailed from the wealthiest families in the Detroit area. The Crane, the student newspaper, opined on the 1964 presidential race between President Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater (it endorsed Johnson), but the political and social strife of the Vietnam era was still several years away. Romney, whose father George headed American Motors Corp. and then was elected governor of Michigan, fit right in.
''He was always driven to do what he wanted to do. He loved challenges," said classmate John French, who has known Romney and his family since he was 6. ''But unlike a lot of Type A guys I know, he wasn't consumed by it. He always was your friend."
Back in Boston, some of the politicians on Beacon Hill view Romney as uncomfortable with the back-slapping and occasional irreverence of the State House. When House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi took office earlier this year, he memorably grabbed Romney in a bear hug and promised to warm him up.
But here on the 315-acre Cranbrook campus, amid buildings designed in the mid-1920s by the famous Finnish-American architect Eliel Saarinen, Romney was in his element yesterday. He hugged many of his classmates and laughed easily as they reminisced. Among them were an Internet executive, an investment manager for nonprofits, and a Washington lobbyist.
Romney, accepting the alumnus award, began his speech by thanking his classmates for showing up despite ''my many weaknesses and occasionally obnoxious outbursts during my many years with them."
It wasn't the first time he had addressed them: In 1964 The Crane hailed Romney's ''brilliantly hilarious monologue" at the homecoming assembly, noting that ''the majority of his cutting comments were addressed toward the beings which exist across the lake." That would be the girls at Kingswood, Cranbrook's sister school, which Romney's girlfriend and future wife, Ann, attended. She accompanied him yesterday.
In the 1965 yearbook, there are pictures of Romney goofing off, with the nightwatchman at his dormitory, at school dances, and in an advertisement for a local clothing store. Romney recalled in an interview how he and his friends got into trouble with the police after they bought huge blocks of ice from the local gas station, laid towels over them, and went sliding down the slopes of a nearby golf course. He remembers dressing up as a police officer himself and startling his friends and their girlfriends by rapping on the steamed up windows of their parked cars.
''When he pulled a prank on you, you were laughing as hard as anybody else," said French, ''Nothing ever was malicious."
The future governor did well academically at Cranbrook, but he wasn't a star. During his senior year he won the George G. Booth citation, given to students ''whose contributions to school life are often not fully recognized through already existing channels." In other words, he was liked and respected without being the best student or athlete.
Dearth, who heads an Internet marketing firm in New Canaan, Conn., said Romney remained popular despite the twin challenges of being the son of the governor and a Mormon who could not drink beer with his friends.
''He knew that he had to toe the line, and he did," Dearth said.
Romney credits Cranbrook for teaching him to read critically and to write. But the most important skills he developed during those years may have been social ones. All in all, his high school experience sounds remarkably similar to that of another Republican who attended a fancy prep school: George W. Bush. At Phillips Academy in Andover, Bush did not excel in the classroom or on the athletic fields, but he honed social skills that would propel him in politics. Bush, who headed the cheerleading squad and was the self-proclaimed ''High Commissioner of Stickball," had a knack for making everyone feel comfortable. Apparently, so did Romney (who also was a cheerleader).
The story that all his friends remember -- and the one that Romney retold to the loudest guffaws yesterday -- unfolded at his first-ever cross-country meet, with his mother and new girlfriend Ann watching.
On that day more than 40 years ago, 17-year-old Mitt dashed into the woods ahead of the other runners, and at the halfway mark he was still in the lead. His long legs were carrying him toward a thrilling triumph.
But he had started the race too quickly: Suddenly, Romney recalled, his legs were ''filling with concrete." He lost the lead. Then, as he staggered toward the finish line, he lost consciousness. Romney collapsed face first onto the cinder track, but he struggled to his feet and ended up finishing 12th. He was carried off on a stretcher.
Is the story evidence of Romney's grit and determination, or a cautionary tale about overeagerness? If Romney runs for president, there will be plenty of reporters and political analysts eager to interpret it. But Romney's old friends settled on their interpretation long ago.
''He wasn't someone who was overwhelming in terms of his accomplishments, yet he was well thought of and admired," said James Bailey, a classmate of Romney's. ''When he finished, there was thunderous applause. It took a lot of courage to do that."