George Wilcken Romney, former governor of Michigan, contender for the Republican presidential nomination, U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development and chairman of American Motors Corp., died Wednesday. He was 88.
Romney died of natural causes and was found slumped on a treadmill by his wife, Lenore, in their suburban Detroit home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., according to their son G. Scott Romney.
The Republican leader, who wrested the Michigan governor's office from Democrats in 1962 for the first time in 14 years, sought the presidential nomination in 1968 but dropped out of the race two weeks before the New Hampshire primary.
His national political fizzle was generally attributed to a statement he made in a 1967 television interview saying that he had supported the war in Vietnam because he had been "brainwashed" by the military during a tour of the beleaguered Southeast Asian country.
But Romney believed otherwise, commenting in 1989: "It wasn't because of my position on Vietnam or anything I said about Vietnam. It was because Nelson Rockefeller became a candidate and there was no way I could get the nomination fighting both Rockefeller and Richard Nixon."
Nixon named him to the Housing and Urban Development post, which Romney held from 1969 to 1972, when he returned to Michigan and the private sector.
Romney, who was also an official of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, turned away from politics in his later years and devoted himself to encouraging volunteerism as founding chairman of VOLUNTEER: The National Center for Citizen Involvement.
"I don't know of any substitute for what the volunteer can do," he told The Times during a visit to Los Angeles in 1984. "I'm a great believer in what Woodrow Wilson said: 'The most powerful force on earth is the spontaneous cooperation of a free people.' "
Romney expressed some disillusionment with the politics and government he had worked in for so many years, adding:
"One of the reasons we are having real problems in terms of great [budget] deficits and so forth is the tendency, when faced with a problem, to say, 'What is the government going to do?' We have found that government programs often aren't as effective in many instances as we thought they would be.
"I don't know of anything more effective in helping individuals who have problems--drugs, alcohol, you name it--as the willingness of an individual who is capable of helping another person to care enough to help that person. That caring motivates the people who need help to make an effort that they ordinarily wouldn't make for a professional or a bureaucrat."
Until his death, Romney maintained a rigorous exercise regimen of a daily eight-mile walk and a round of golf at the Bloomfield Hills Country Club. In robust health, he helped advise his son Mitt, a Massachusetts businessman, in an unsuccessful challenge last year to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
On July 8, the elder Romney was in Los Angeles to celebrate his 88th birthday at the opening performance of "Shadowlands," a play starring his actress daughter Jane Romney at the Tracy Roberts Theatre in Beverly Hills.
Romney was born July 8, 1907, in Chihuahua, Mexico, where his parents and other Mormons had moved to avoid U.S. laws restricting the practice of polygamy. He grew up in Idaho and Salt Lake City, where he and his wife met in high school.
The future governor attended four colleges, but never graduated. Following a church tradition for youths, he spent two years as a Mormon missionary in England and Scotland.
Romney first encountered politics in 1929 as a Capitol Hill aide to Sen. David I. Walsh of Massachusetts.
After working at Alcoa and the Aluminum Wares Assn., Romney moved to Detroit in 1939 to become local manager of the Automobile Manufacturers Assn. He served as the national group's general manager from 1942 until 1948, when he joined Nash-Kelvinator Corp., the forerunner of American Motors.
One of Romney's proudest accomplishments at the automobile manufacturer was marketing the country's first successful compact economy car, the Nash Rambler. He was credited with coining the phrase "gas-guzzling dinosaurs" to depict his competitors' luxury cars that had captivated American drivers for so many years.
"We forced the Big Three into small-car production," Romney was proud of saying.
He became president and chairman of AMC in 1954 and remained until 1962, when he waged his successful battle to unseat Democratic Gov. John B. Swainson. Romney was reelected in 1964 and 1966.
His route to the governor's office had a strong impact on Michigan government. In 1959, Romney created Citizens for Michigan, which led a drive to rewrite the state's Constitution. Two years later, he was elected a delegate to the convention that created the state's current Constitution, and used that platform to seek the governorship.
William Milliken, who succeeded Romney as governor, said Wednesday that Romney "was one of the finest public servants this state has ever known."
Michigan Gov. John Engler ordered flags to be flown at half-staff in Romney's memory.
In addition to Lenore, his wife of 64 years, Romney is survived by his two sons, daughters Jane Romney and Lynn Keenan, 23 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren.
Funeral services are scheduled for Monday in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Bloomfield Hills.