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Belmont at home with Romneys

Grant Bennett said Mitt Romney takes his church responsibilities seriously.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Grant Bennett said Mitt Romney takes his church responsibilities seriously.

One of the signs that Mitt Romney lives in the handsome tan condo on Belmont Hill is the shiny black Ford SUV parked and running in the driveway. In it is a Secret Service agent watching the private road.

To the neighbors, the candidate’s presence on their street is at once unusual and unremarkable: Romney checks the mail. Romney waves hello. Romney comes by in a motorcade. And always, the Secret Service agent.

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“The whole experience is very revealing, how low-key it is, yet it’s there,” said Joe Newberg,  65, who lives just over a rise in the road from Romney. “When he’s there, or when Ann is there, they both are protected.’’

The Republican presidential candidate has been coming home to Belmont since 1971, when he and Ann moved into a home on Winn Street. Their five sons  attended the private Belmont Hill School; the Romney name hangs on the wall as “Diamond Benefactor”  of the senior center where the GOP candidate might cast his vote for president; and if Romney is elected, among his many decisions will be whether to keep serving on Belmont’s Republican Town Committee,  where he, Ann, son Taggart, and daughter-in-law Jennifer won seats this past March.  

The quiet community of 25,000 has gotten used to the commotion of Romney’s celebrity, and many people in town have a Romney story. Most are about sightings from afar, glimpses caught at Town Meeting, on voting day, at his sons’ baseball games picking up stray balls. Romney orders the Bolognese at Il Casale in Belmont center; Ann shops for gifts for her grandchildren at Belmont Toys.

Maryann Scali,  a lifelong Belmont resident who just celebrated her 60th  high school reunion at Belmont High,  remembers Ann Romney’s run for Town Meeting member in the 1970s.

“She was in politics before he was!” said Scali, a Town Meeting member.  Scali remembers Ann going door to door campaigning, hair tied back with a bandana. She doesn’t remember Romney’s platform; she does remember her tennis skills.

“We played on the public courts in those days,” she said. “She was a great player.”

When his boys were teenagers in the 1990s, Romney used to bring them into Rancatore’s Ice Cream  for frappes. Father and sons were always impeccably dressed and stood out from the shorts-and-T-shirts-clad clientele.

Romney might take his tie off, said owner Joe Rancatore,  but he always kept his jacket on.

“I can’t tell you how striking the boys and dad were,” said Rancatore. “They were enormous. Easily the biggest family that came in all night. They looked like they could form a football team. Jesus, no wonder we won the West!”

Joe O’Donnell  has known the Romneys since the 1970s. They were neighbors on Belmont Hill, their kids played on the baseball team O’Donnell coached, and they used to play tennis together at the Belmont Hill Club.  

After O’Donnell’s young son Joey died of cystic fibrosis, the Romneys showed up at the boy’s elementary school to help build Joey’s Park,  a memorial playground constructed in a community barn-raising over the course of a week by hundreds of Belmont residents in 1989. 

“I remember Mitt coming in as the best dressed – he had his jeans on, and they were starched. He looked like Mitt, he looked perfect,” said O’Donnell, noting that Romney has continued to support the park and a fund in Joey’s name. “I do remember him coming in with his hammer on his belt buckle. Mitt is prepared. The rest of us looked like we were going to a construction site.”

Others, though, are less enthusiastic about claiming Romney as one of their own.

“I haven’t seen him since he became governor,” said Dickran Ghazarian,  63,  standing with his arms crossed behind glass cases of jewelry in his Cushing Square business D G Goldsmith.  

“He has a lot of houses everywhere; I think he’s from every state,” he said.

Away from spotlight

Some of Romney’s deepest roots in Belmont are at the Mormon meeting house and temple where he attends services when he is in town. Just off the Concord Turnpike, the temple sits at what is considered by many to be the highest point in Belmont, its steeple topped by the angel Moroni. The meeting house, where the congregation worships, sits below the temple, ringed by maple trees. 

“He’s clearly deeply at home in the meeting house,” said Grant Bennett,  a close friend who shared senior leadership responsibilities in the church with Romney for 12 years.  “He’s very happy to have the spotlight off. And to be with friends, where their relationship is just totally independent of and transcends any kind of political environment.”

Part of the reason the Romneys moved to Belmont was that the town was becoming known as a place where area Mormons were settling.

In 1982, Bennett said, Romney became the bishop — equivalent to the pastor — of the local congregation, which included Belmont, Watertown, and Waltham.  Later, he was elevated to stake leader, in charge of a collection of congregations.  

One of his responsibilities, said Bennett, was to meet once or twice a year with the congregation’s teenagers and talk one-on-one about their hopes, schooling, and relationships with their parents.  

“You can imagine, sitting down with a 12- or 13-year-old, many of the conversations were entirely perfunctory and not remarkable,” said Bennett. But Romney held many of those conversations with kids over the time he was bishop.

“I can recall one case where I know Mitt was out on the West Coast for work and he took a redeye home, flew all night, simply to make sure he was there to have these run-of-the-mill conversations with teenagers.”

Romney was involved in the construction of the temple’s golden steeple, which was vociferously opposed by residents concerned that its height was out of character with the rest of the area.

He rarely speaks publicly about his faith, but in 1996  the ensuing legal battle brought him before a Belmont Zoning Board of Appeals meeting, at which he described the church steeples he saw in neighboring towns and how they inspired him.

“In my view, [steeples] remind us that we were brought here and preserved in this land by [providence],” he said, according to town records. “They typify our diversity representing a host of faiths and a host of people. To some they’re like guideposts standing for constant answers in a changing and troubling world. As graffiti begins to corrupt our edifices, even in Belmont, I’ve noticed, I celebrate this physical witness of God’s hand open to all his children.”                           

Same town, new house

The Romneys’ third home in Belmont, which they sold for $3.5 million in 2009, was a mansion on Marsh Street on Belmont Hill, a winding, leafy road, lined with spectacular estates set back from the street by long driveways and rustic stone walls.

The candidate now lives in the townhouse  in The Woodlands at Belmont Hill. Residents of The Woodlands are alternately annoyed and amused at questions about Romney.

“I’d much rather be living next door to Obama,” said a neighbor whose car sports an Obama sticker. “The bumper sticker’s not coming off!”

Differences aside, they do admit to poking their heads out when Romney’s motorcade rolls into the neighborhood.

The Romneys have a standing invitation to the neighborhood’s block parties, book club, and discussion group, said Newberg, though no one is upset over their absence so far. “He’s really been pretty occupied,” said Newberg.

Mixed feelings

The lunch crowd at the Belmont senior center was rooting for Romney on a recent Friday, enjoying lasagna and peaches in the same room where Romney may cast his vote for president.

But as for the rest of Belmont, many aren’t so sure.

“He’s not that hometown-boy hero,” Joseph Andrea, 92,  a World War II veteran and staunch Romney supporter, said when asked whether Romney will win Belmont.

“Too many dedicated Democrats in this town,” said Larry Furnari, 87, a fellow veteran and Romney backer.

Though Belmont backed Romney in 2002 when he ran for governor, the town didn’t back him when he lost the 1994 US Senate race to Edward M. Kennedy. The last time the town voted for a Republican in the presidential race was in 1980.

Many of the regulars at the senior center plan to swing by the center on Nov. 6 in hopes of catching a glimpse of Romney, who may or may not keep a home in town after the election.

Though his son, Tagg, still lives here, the elder Romney is expanding a La Jolla, Calif., property, and has an $8 million home in New Hampshire as well.

“This is just one of the places where he sleeps,” said Furnari.

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com
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