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My dinner date with George Romney

In 1966, Look Magazine awarded its annual “All-America City” award to Michigan City, Ind., my hometown. George Romney, governor of Michigan and father of the current titular Republican nominee for president, Willard Mitt Romney, was chosen to present the award to Michigan City. (Don't ask me why a Michigan governor was picked to present a national award to an Indiana city – maybe because Look Magazine didn't realize that Michigan City was actually in Indiana?)

In any event, the city fathers (and, yes, they were all men back then, of course) and the local Chamber of Commerce asked the honchos of our only public high school to choose an “outstanding student” to present and introduce Gov. Romney to Michigan City. Yeah, it was me. Why me?

I had just turned 17, had a GPA of 3.9, had been accepted by 150 colleges and universities around the country and was a year ahead of my graduating class. These were not athletic scholarships. I didn't play basketball or football or run track. But I didn't think I was all that “smart.” I just outworked everybody else, studying five to six hours a night and reading everything I could get my hands on.

The ceremony was held at Michigan City's swankiest (and only) hotel, The Golden Sands, just a few miles from the Indiana-Michigan border. My father rented me my first tuxedo for the occasion. When the MC Police Department sent a patrol car to take me to the hotel, as I followed the police officer out of our front door, I overheard my dad tell my mother, “I'm thankful the po-lice comin' to to take 'im to see the governor and not to the jailhouse.”

As I was escorted down a long, thickly carpeted corridor leading to the banquet room, the uniformed Indiana and Michigan National Guardsmen lining both sides of the hallway eyed me curiously. They were relaxed, talking, smoking. Their talk dropped to whispers as I passed: “Who the hell is he?” I heard one of them ask. “What the hell is he?” another one mumbled. “All dressed up in that monkey suit.”

The governor had not yet arrived, but the room was filling up fast. There were local and state dignitaries, and one prominent national politician, Indiana's US Sen. Birch Bayh, father of Evan Bayh, former Indiana secretary of state, governor of Indiana and a US senator himself.

Just as I took my place on the dais next to the podium, the governor of Michigan, George Romney, began that same walk down the long corridor I had just traversed. Those same National Guardsmen snapped to, straight as arrows, and saluted Romney as sharply as any Marine has ever saluted any president entering Air Force One. The governor entered the room. The whole crowd stood, me included.

George Romney was a speckled-gray-haired, middle-aged white man, very distinguished looking, and somebody who was obviously quite comfortable in his own skin. He shook all outstretched hands as he made his way to the dais, preceded, followed, surrounded by some serious-looking security guys. They led him to the stage, sat him down right next to the podium...and me.

The master of ceremonies hurried over and introduced us. As we shook hands, the governor said, “So, you're that young honor student they've been telling me about....Good to meet you, Herb, good to meet you.”

I have never been “starstruck,” but there was something about this man, George Romney, that just screamed “Leader!” I am rarely speechless, but Romney's folksiness and down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth persona caught me off-guard – especially with that “honor student” bit and calling me by name. He'd obviously done his homework or had been well briefed about me and this event.

“Thank you, governor. Nice to meet you, too,” was all I could manage.

As we toyed over our rubber chickens, people on all sides of the governor approached, questioned, made statements, even mini-speeches. He virtually ignored them all and talked directly to me. What was I planning after high school? Had I heard from the University of Michigan or Michigan State? He knew I didn't play ball, but he also knew that our high school basketball team was on the verge of winning the state championship. Did I know those guys? What did I think of the recently passed civil rights laws? Had I ever met Dr. Martin Luther King? Would I like to?

The waiters removed our plates, and the master of ceremonies began to introduce me. As he talked, my mind rehearsed for the 3,003rd time my five-minute speech. And then, there it was, “.....Herbert Dyer, Jr.”

Polite applause ensued, but I sensed more curiosity than anything else. I stood and began my introduction, ending with, “....the governor of Michigan, George Romney!” A rousing, ten-minute standing ovation ensued. I assumed it was for the governor and began clapping as well. Then I turned slightly, and saw him standing, facing me and vigorously clapping.

As I tried to move past him back to my seat, the governor grabbed my hand and pumped my whole arm; and then walked the few steps to the podium. He stood there silently for a full two minutes after the applause died down. “I do believe,” he said finally, “that that was the best, the finest introduction I have ever received.” The audience stood again. The governor motioned me to stand and take a bow.

I was stunned, and I don't remember a word of the governor's speech.

His last words to me were, "You know, Herb, I have a son about your age." He had one of his aides give me a card and then invited me to come see him in Lansing whenever I was in Michigan. "Maybe you could talk some sense into him." I never saw him again in person.

I didn't know then, of course, but do now, that the son he referred to had to be Mitt, who at the time was going through his bullying-of-gay-students stage at a very exclusive and prestigious boarding school.

George Romney was a man of deep personal and public commitment to people....all people. He was the personification of and exuded honesty and integrity. His work as president and CEO of American Motors Corporation, by then, was legendary. And, in just three short years as governor of Michigan, he brought the state out of deep recession and debt into a surplus, while reducing unemployment to almost zero percent.

He was a frontrunner for the 1968 Republican Party nomination until his return from an investigative trip to Vietnam. The anti-war movement was just kicking into high gear, but many millions of Americans, the majority in fact, still supported the war. As was his habit, Gov. Romney made the "mistake" of speaking honestly about the war, calling it questionable, if not down right illegal and wrong. He accused the American news media, the military and U.S. diplomats of "brainwashing" and corrupting the American public and him about the true facts about that war. His political career took an immediate nosedive from which he never recovered.

President Nixon appointed him as Housing and Urban Development Secretary, but Romney quit in frustration after the first term over Nixon's lack of support for some of his too "liberal" ideas about ending housing discrimination against "negroes" and other "civil rights" matters. George Romney's resignation from the Nixon Administration came not a moment too soon; Nixon's rendezvous with history, with Watergate and his eventual impeachment were all waiting, lurking patiently just over the political horizon.

Does anybody believe, think, imagine that, today, son Mitt has the guts, the nerve or the heart to show such courage of belief and conviction to principle? He certainly has the DNA for it. But, alas, it appears that contrary to the old saying, this apple fell far too far from the tree.

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