At Harvard, Romney Wasn’t Your Typical Student

From now until November, President Obama and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney will emphasize their differences. But the two men’s lives actually coincide in a striking number of ways. In this installment of NPR’s “Parallel Lives” series, a look at Romney’s time at their shared alma mater.

When Mitt Romney attacks his Democratic opponent on the campaign trail, he often derides President Obama’s Ivy League credentials.

“We have a president who I think is a nice guy, but he spent too much time at Harvard,” Romney told supporters at his Pennsylvania campaign headquarters in April.

But Obama wasn’t the only one in this campaign to attend Harvard. Twenty years before Obama graduated from the law school, Romney earned a joint degree from Harvard’s law and business schools. While Obama spent three years studying in Cambridge, Mass., Romney spent four.

In 1971, first-year Harvard Law students were seated alphabetically. That’s how Garret Rasmussen, now a partner at a Washington, D.C., law firm, found himself seated next to Romney. They were assigned a project together.

“It involved housing,” Rasmussen recalls. “I remember that because I remember that he wanted [to], and I think did, call his father, who was [President Nixon's] secretary of housing at the time. And I was surprised that he did that. I mean, he did it without the slightest hesitation.”

“It wasn’t cheating or anything,” Rasmussen adds. “He was very interested in the project, trying to do the best he could,” and George Romney had data that his son thought would be useful.

Counter-Counterculture

That establishment frame of mind set Romney apart at Harvard Law School in 1971. It was a tumultuous time on campus. “There’s people walking around in army fatigues,” Rasmussen says. “Most of us were not freshly washed. We had longer hair.”

Law students talked back to their professors all the time, or refused to answer questions in class. Never Romney. “He was almost sort of like a Boy Scout thrown into the middle of a late Vietnam War campus,” says Rasmussen.

At 24, Romney was older than many of his classmates. He had spent time after college doing Mormon missionary work in France. Romney was married and had a son when he got to Harvard, and he lived off-campus in the suburbs. So he came off as a necktie amid the tie-dye, recall his former classmates.

“He was living a life that almost seemed like a throwback to what the ’60s and ’70s counterculture had rebelled against,” says classmate Howard Brownstein. “Not that there was anything wrong with it. It just seemed like more of a ’50s lifestyle.”

Romney’s devotion to his faith also distinguished him. At a school full of coffee, booze and cigarettes, Romney didn’t consume any of them. Friends say he tried using humor to close the gap.

Brownstein, who later worked with Romney at a Boston consulting firm and now runs a crisis consulting business in Pennsylvania, once bummed a cigarette off a friend and started to smoke it next to Romney. “He kind of made a little cough,” Brownstein says. “It was kind of a joke. And that … I thought, typified that he had a sense of humor — he wasn’t trying to beat the world over the head with how he lived.”

Making Connections

Despite his distance from the broader Harvard community, friends remember Romney’s devotion to people on an individual level.

When Mark Mazo started law school, he wanted the smartest guy in the room for his five-person law school study group — and that was Romney. They became close, and one night Romney and his wife, Ann, invited Mazo and his future wife to dinner.

“They served pork chops for dinner, and my wife doesn’t eat pork,” Mazo says. “Mitt was seriously embarrassed by that at the time. And it was fine with my wife. It was fine with me. But it affected him more than it affected us, and we told him that then.”

Forty years later, now a partner at a law firm, Mazo attended a Romney fundraiser in the Washington, D.C., area. The men hadn’t seen each other in decades, so Mazo reintroduced himself.

Romney asked about Mazo’s wife by name. Mazo remembers thinking: “Gee, he had really good staff work. There were people who briefed him before this and said your law school classmate will be there.”

Then Romney said, “You came to my house for dinner!”

Mazo was dumbfounded.

Romney said, “I remember what we ate!”

“Governor, honestly, I don’t remember what we ate,” Mazo replied.

“We ate pork chops!” exclaimed Romney.

“Then he sort of hit himself on the side of the head like, ‘Duh!’” Mazo recalls, chuckling.

Lasting Loyalty

Just across the river from the law school, the business school was a world away culturally. One day the Harvard campus erupted in protests, “and the business school closed its roads going in,” says Professor Detlev Vagts, “and sort of abstained.”

Vagts, who ran the joint law and business school degree program for almost 50 years, says the business side was a better fit for Romney. “He had a very strong business school record, and a good but not outstanding law school record.”

Vagts says the difference in achievement reflects Romney’s interests. “If he had given himself heart and soul to the law side, he certainly would have done somewhat better.” Still, Romney ranked in the top half of his law school class.

Only about a dozen students each year enrolled in the joint program. It was expensive, took a long time and involved tons of work. Classmates say Romney studied ferociously, even relative to Harvard’s famously high standards.

“Mitt was a leader among the study groups,” says classmate Howard Serkin, who now runs an investment firm in Jacksonville, Fla. “I can tell you nobody worked harder than he did.”

Just as at the law school, Romney remains loyal to his business school friends all these decades later. Once, when Romney had to fly from Utah to Greece for a meeting of the Olympic Committee at the same time as a business school study group reunion, he added a layover in Boston to the itinerary.

“So he flies into Boston, not going directly to Athens, takes a cab, comes to our dinner, spends about three hours with us, gets in the cab, back to Logan [airport], flies all night to Athens,” Serkin says. “And he didn’t have to do that, but he wanted to do it.”

Professor Colin Blaydon, who now directs Dartmouth’s business school, taught Romney’s first-year finance course at Harvard. He doesn’t remember every student in an 80-person class that he taught 40 years ago, but he remembers Romney, and not just for his analytical mind.

“One day I looked around and sitting in the back row, which is known as the ‘skydeck,’ I saw a face I recognized,” Blaydon says. “It was George Romney, his father. He was a man I recognized and admired, and I knew he hadn’t come there to listen to me.”

Romney’s classmates and professors don’t recall him expressing an interest in following his father into politics. They say he worked doggedly to succeed in business. Ultimately, Romney did. Only after that did he begin a second act, on the political stage.

In the next part of the “Parallel Lives” series, Ari Shapiro explores President Obama’s Harvard days.

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