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Buena Vista, Va. • Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney cited Mormon pioneers and biblical advice on Saturday in challenging graduates of an LDS-dominated college to live life to the fullest.
"You're about to write new chapters in your life story. Give yourself a lot to write about," Romney told graduates of Southern Virginia University, a private school abutting the Blue Ridge Mountains. "You only live one life; don't spend it in safe, shallow water. Launch out into the deep."
Romney, who received nearly 61 million votes for president in November, chose to offer the commencement address only his second public speech since ending his bid at the private university, which has an enrollment of fewer than 800 students, about 92 percent of whom are Mormon.
The former Republican nominee urged graduates to wed, "have a quiver full of kids if you can," give more effort to their careers than expected, serve God and seize opportunities.
Months removed from his White House bid, Romney shelved the political stump speech, instead quoting from Luke and the diary of an 1800s Mormon pioneer to inspire the students to step out of their comfort zone.
Romney did, though, give a nod to the support he drew from the student body, many of whom spread out across Virginia to help push his candidacy.
"Quite literally hundreds from this campus took vacation time to help a presidential campaign for which I owe you deeply," Romney said.
The school, clearly, is still Romney country.
In presenting Romney an honorary doctorate, the audience and graduates gave him a sustained standing ovation.
"He's a great man," says Joanne Erickson, of Hamburg, N.Y., whose daughter, Rachel, is a sophomore at the school. "It didn't work out the way we would have wanted [with his White House bid], but he still has a lot to offer. If he can give these graduates some advice, we'll all benefit."
The university is not owned by the LDS Church but embraces the faith's values as part of its curriculum and requires students to adhere to an honor code like that of Brigham Young University. LDS Institute promotions dot the campus, and music for Saturday's graduation came from the faith's hymn book.
Trustees of the school reached out to Romney to appear for the commencement and he accepted, speaking for free.
"It tells you a lot about his character, doesn't it?" says Reed Belden, of nearby Lexington who isn't LDS but a big Romney fan. "It shows he cares a lot about his church."
The school's provost, Madison Sowell, praised Romney for running his presidential campaign with "dignity and honor."
"We're proud, very proud of his character and we salute him for his willingness to serve," Sowell said to strong applause.
Romney's critics were somewhat successful in last year's election in painting him as an aloof, rich politician who couldn't understand the needs of the middle class or the nation's impoverished. Romney's comment that 47 percent of Americans wouldn't vote for him haunted his bid.
On Saturday, Romney pressed that graduates should strive to be worldly successful but reserve their best efforts to become closer to God and live a good, spiritual life.
"I don't think God cares whether you get rich. I don't think he hopes your business will make a huge profit," Romney said. "I know a lot of religious people who think God will intervene and make their investments grow, will get them their promotion or make their business a success. But life on this Earth is about learning to live and work in a place where God does not make everything work out for good people."
Fortunately, Romney said, a relationship with God doesn't depend on worldly fortunes. "It's entirely in our control," Romney said. "For he is always at the door and knocks for us."