Mitt Romney had about six months left to serve as a Mormon missionary in France when tragedy struck.
The 21-year-old was driving mission leaders to Bordeaux in June, 1968, when a car driven by a Catholic priest who’d been drinking crossed into their lane and smashed head-on into their Citroen DS. The accident killed the Mormon mission president’s wife, who had been seated in the front between her husband and Romney. She was 57.
When Mission President H. Duane Anderson, then 55, took her body back to California for burial, Romney and another recruit jointly managed the church’s France operation of about 200 missionaries for the next seven weeks.
“We were all devastated; she was our mom away from home,” said Byron Hansen, who lived for a period with Romney and the Andersons in the mission home in Paris. “The Mormon church entrusted these two young men with the responsibility of assuming the role and basically running the mission for a two-month period. Mitt was very gung-ho and he kind of cracked the whip on us even more so than had been done previously.”
Romney, 65, has rarely spoken in the presidential race about his 30 months in France for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His campaign declined to comment for this article. Yet it is a period in his life filled with experiences, some defining and others mundane, that couldn’t be more different from his well-to-do Michigan upbringing and his rapid ascent from Harvard University’s law and business schools to the top echelon of the investment community as co-founder of Bain Capital LLC.
During his missionary service, he mistakenly checked into a hotel in an area frequented by prostitutes, advised homeward-bound young men about buying perfume for their mothers, bunked in tiny rooms on makeshift beds, and challenged his fellow missionaries to turn tragedy into achievement by exceeding their religious conversion targets.
“A mission is about serving others, of course, but in my experience, it shaped the missionary as well,” Romney wrote in his 2010 update of his book “No Apologies.” “Like my fellow missionaries, I lived on a hundred dollars a month -- about six hundred of today’s dollars -- and that had to cover rent, food, transportation, and clothing. Accordingly, I lived quite differently than I had as the son of an American auto executive.”
Rite of Passage
The mission experience is “university, Peace Corps, rite of passage,” said Dave Ulrich, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business who was sent to Montreal as mission president. “A lot of our humanity comes through in our church service. Ignoring some of that leaves him seeming very stale and very rigid and very distant.”
This account of Romney’s time in France comes from interviews with a dozen Mormons, nine who were with him in France, and not all of whom say they will vote for him. Bloomberg also had access to a diary kept by Anderson’s wife, which he added to after her death.
In 1960, there were 2,000 church members in France, where secularism is encoded in the law. Their numbers grew to 10,000 by 1970. Romney’s service began July 4, 1966, when he and eight other missionaries boarded a flight from Salt Lake City, Utah to Paris.
The life of a missionary was difficult. They were expected to rise at 6 a.m. and study language and scripture before breakfast. Then they set out for the day, knocking on doors to inform people about the church and encourage them to convert to it. They took a break for lunch and were to be in bed by 10:30 p.m.
The volunteer missionaries lived in four-person apartments, sharing in cooking and clean-up, in conditions that ranged widely. Restricted to two suitcases, they moved on average every four to six months, and would change companions as well, with one named the senior based generally on the length of time in a given location. The two spent every moment together, except for bathroom breaks.
Romney was sent to the northwest port of Le Havre, where there hadn’t been a missionary presence since before World War II, his then-senior companion Don Miller said. One of the first tasks was to find lodging. They stayed in a cheap hotel until a woman urged them to find another place to stay, he said.
“She just went ashen, and said you have to get out of there, it’s the red-light district,” Miller, now a dentist in Calgary, said. “We were just too dumb to know.”
They found a one-bedroom apartment in a high-rise, which Miller rated “lucky” given it came with a private bathroom. They laid doors atop bricks, and bought surplus ship mattresses from a dealer in the port town, making for beds that were “very, very narrow; if you turned over, you’d fall off.”
Romney was also posted to Paris, where he lived in what Mulloy Hansen, his companion there, said was “considered the worst apartment in the French mission.”
It was a fourth-floor walk-up near Montparnasse cemetery, Hansen said, that “shared a squat john with three other apartments, which was a real revelation.” The men rigged a shower with a curtain and a two-feet-wide plastic tub, so “the shower was over when the tub was full,” said Hansen, now an Idaho doctor.
The two bedrooms measured about 10-feet-by-10-feet, necessitating bunk beds, and the kitchen was just 10-feet-by-4-feet, he said. “It was the worst place I ever lived.”
Even with the trying living conditions, the missionaries had opportunities to expand their knowledge about the culture and history of another nation and bring some of that back with them.
Gerald Anderson, a self-described “farm-boy from southern Alberta,” had started his French mission in February 1965. As he and others prepared to return home in August 1967, they decided to buy perfumes as gifts for their mothers and sisters. Romney, who’d been to France before with his family and whose mother had taught him about perfumes, guided them to Guerlain on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, where he showed them how to test the scents, said Anderson, who isn’t related to the France mission president.
“You have this person who is very sophisticated, very refined, who has every possibility of feeling better than anybody else, and never once did I get that feeling,” said Anderson, an agronomist who worked in a sugar factory to save money for his mission. “He was just another one of the guys, and when he arrived, that was all he ever wanted to be.”
Michael Bush served in Bordeaux with Romney. Now a teacher of French at Brigham Young University, Bush said Romney gave him his shoes when his had worn through and he couldn’t afford new ones on his monthly budget.
Bush and Romney were in Bordeaux during the strikes sparked by the student protests in May 1968. Public services such as mail came to a halt, interfering with delivery of their allowances, Bush said.
The missionaries turned to local members for help, and Andre Salarnier said he and his wife fed Romney during the time.
“Romney was very social and sociable,” said Salarnier, who lives now in St. Pierre de Plesguen in western France. He recalled Romney working to get money to other missionaries. “That’s the type of character he has; he’s one who helps,” he said.
After about three months in Bordeaux, Romney was asked to join Joel McKinnon as assistants to President Anderson, moving to the mission home in Paris, the headquarters of the church in France at the time. McKinnon declined to comment for this story.
The three-story home on rue de Lota in Paris’s 16th arrondissement was a short walk to the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower and the Bois de Boulogne. The ground floor held offices and a meeting hall for the Paris members to worship.
On Sunday, June 16, 1968, at about 5 p.m., Romney drove the Andersons, fellow missionary David Wood, and two French church members, back to Bordeaux after staying the night in Pau, according to Anderson’s account in his wife’s missionary diary. They came over a hill about 31 miles south of Bordeaux when “we were face-to-face with a Mercedes driven by a Catholic priest,” he wrote. “The inevitable crash was horrible.”
The accident left Romney unconscious, with a gash to his head and a broken arm, the diary notes.
McKinnon was teamed with Romney to manage the mission while Anderson returned to the U.S. At that time, the missionaries had averaged about 160 conversions annually -- although they weren’t on pace to meet that number. Rather than letting the tragedy justify a lower conversion rate, Romney and McKinnon boosted the goal to 200.
The pair realized “we’ve got a big problem here; some of them are dedicated and committed and will work their fannies off every day,” said Mulloy Hansen, then mission leader in Pau, near the Pyrenees mountains. “Some of them really would rather just sit there and figure out a way to write their girlfriends letters all day long about how they’re marking the days off their calendar until they can be back.”
They announced the new quota at a zone-leader conference, telling the participants that they had four months to more than double their conversions, a steep challenge given most achieved just two or three during the entire mission.
“Nobody told us how to accomplish it,” said Hansen. “They convinced us that the vision was feasible.”
In Pau, they’d had one baptism in the past 18 months, Hansen said. His team combed through their records for people they’d taught about the church and hadn’t followed up with. They also began approaching people on the street, setting up a storyboard in the main square to draw questions.
“We set a goal of 10 and in just about two months, we baptized 10,” said Hansen. “The branch had a membership of 24 when I arrived, so it was increased by almost 50 percent.”
When Duane Anderson returned to Paris in August 1968 after burying his wife, he brought his son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons to live with him. Romney left for home before Christmas that year.
Romney and McKinnon “handled things beautifully in my parents’ absence,” said Richard “Andy” Anderson, who later lived near the Romneys for about 30 years in Massachusetts. “My dad could never stop talking about it.”