Mitt Romney and I were missionaries whose service overlapped in the French Mission. At the time of Mitt’s car accident, described in this New York Times article, I was working in the Latin Quarter in Paris. This became “ground zero” when the historic riots broke out in the Latin Quarter, riots which eventually paralyzed the country and almost toppled the government of Charles de Gaulle. As an embryonic political scientist, I was fascinated by what was transpiring in the Latin Quarter, a fascination reinforced by my two years at UC Berkeley during the time of the “free-speech movement.” In contrast, Mitt had been at Stanford for a year prior to his mission, but the difference between campus life at Stanford versus Berkeley was the same as the difference between Venus and Mars. The French students eventually took control of the Sorbonne, the Odeon (the national theater), and other facilities in the area, and my missionary companion and I would periodically sit in on some of the ad hoc meetings and listen to how the students were going to transform life in France, somewhat reminiscent of what might have transpired in Moscow in October 1917. Periodically we would be stopped at the door of the Sorbonne or Odeon because we were foreigners wearing a suit and a tie. I told the student guards that I had been a student at Berkeley and that was the magic phrase that permitted us to enter.
The students were suspicious of foreigners but so were French authorities. During some of the riots, the special French police force known as the CRS would arrest anyone in the vicinity of the riots and immediately deport many foreigners. Some of our missionaries came close to being deported, and some missionaries were also too close to the action, being hit by batons or tear-gas canisters. In addition, missionaries were at times suspected of working for the CIA. Our mission home was located in a beautiful structure in the embassy district of Paris, the 16th arrondissement. Coincidentally, the mission home was located right next door to the military attaché of the Soviet Union. My final Mission President was Smith B. Griffin, the father of Janet Griffin who was the wife of Rex Lee and mother of current Senator Mike Lee. President Griffin had been a high official in the U.S. Treasury Department and was certain that the mission home was bugged by the Soviets. There were also unsubstantiated rumors that the CIA had asked for permission to use part of our facility as a listening post to eavesdrop on the Soviet officials next door.
As for the auto accident, we all grieved as a result of the loss of Sister Anderson and were concerned when President Anderson had to return to the United States for medical treatment and to reconnect with his family. However, we then entered a very interesting phase where for several months the mission was totally run by young missionaries.
This is surprising for three major reasons. First, it seems out of character for Salt Lake City to allow any mission to be run by young missionaries. Second, the French Mission had a checkered reputation. And lastly, France was on the brink of a major political and social upheaval, and there was even the specter of civil war. During the worst of the crisis, all transportation networks were closed and grocery shelves were bare. Contingency plans were made to contact missionaries throughout the country and instruct them how to exit France (remember there was no mail service, telephones were inoperable, and gasoline stations were shut down).
Nonetheless, missionary work continued without too many disruptions. Mitt and Joel McKinnon were basically in charge, assisted by very fine missionaries such as Dane McBride. Joel and I were both from the Bay Area and we would later become roommates at BYU. A few years ago, Elaine and I visited with Joel and his wife while he served as the Mission President in Montreal. Joel became a successful property developer in Washington, D.C. and Florida and married Paula Hawkins’ daughter Genean. Paula would later become a U.S. Senator representing Florida. Dane McBride would become a noted medical doctor in Kentucky, and we all know about Mitt.
Mitt can never be described as “warm and fuzzy.” He also came across at times as being somewhat “preppy.” He also spoke frequently about a young woman named Ann, his high-school sweetheart back in Michigan who converted to the Gospel while Mitt was on his mission. Several months before the car accident, his father George, then Governor of Michigan, had also sought the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency and would actually travel to Paris and speak to a church congregation in nearby Versailles.
Above all, Mitt was devoted to the Gospel and was a very effective missionary and administrator, especially during this rather unusual period in the annals of the French Mission.