By Steve Holland
TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - They were stories of Mitt Romney's Mormon faith, the kind of stories the Republican presidential candidate has not said much about during his run for the White House.
There was Grant Bennett, a former assistant to Romney who described how Romney, as a Mormon pastor in the late 1970s, devoted 15 to 20 hours a week visiting sick members of his congregation, delivering meals or shoveling snow for the elderly.
There was Ted and Pat Oparowski, an elderly couple who recalled how Romney befriended their 14-year-old son David in the seven months before he died of Hodgkin's disease in 1979, when Romney was a pastor at their church.
And there was Pam Finlayson, who described how Romney sat with her in the hospital when she feared her premature daughter was on the brink of death.
"His eyes filled with tears, and he reached down tenderly and stroked her tiny back," Finlayson recalled, trying to hold back her own tears as she told her story to a hushed crowd at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.
Many delegates wept. And in a matter of moments, Romney's image on the campaign trail as a cool and distant figure - and questions about his work with the Church of the Latter-Day Saints - seemed to evaporate.
Romney has long been reluctant to shed much light on such a personal side of his life, even as his political opponents have cast him as robotic and uncaring. His aides have been frustrated that the personal side of the former Massachusetts governor - which they view as a crucial to understanding him - had not emerged in a more public way.
That changed Thursday night.
Bennett recalled how Romney, as a Mormon pastor, would spend hours counseling those in trouble - single mothers, couples with marital problems, young people with addictions and those in financial difficulty.
"He met with them in private and in confidence," Bennett said, "and he has upheld that trust."
He said Romney was guided by a verse from James in the New Testament, which says that pure religion was "to visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction."
Romney, who typically doesn't refer to the Mormon church, said faith and families were "the bedrock of what makes America America."
"We were Mormons, and growing up in Michigan that might have seemed unusual or out of place, but I really don't remember it that way," he said in his speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination.
'TRUE MEASURE OF A MAN'
The Oparowskis, in front of the convention and a national television audience, told how Romney bought their son fireworks after hearing him speak of how much he loved them.
"Through that simple but thoughtful gift, Mitt brought joy to a young boy who had not experienced any for too long," Pat Oparowski said, adding that the fireworks were kept in a closet until the family could take a trip to the beach to set them off.
"The true measure of a man is revealed in his actions during times of trouble, the quiet hospital room of a dying boy with no cameras or reporters," said Ted Oparowski, a former firefighter.
Later, Romney helped the boy draft a will so that he could leave his treasured possessions - a skateboard, a model rocket and his fishing gear - to the right people.
"How many men do you know would take the time out of their busy lives to visit a terminally ill 14-year-old and help him settle his affairs?" Pat Oparowski said.
Finlayson said others might see Romney as a successful businessman, but "when I see Mitt Romney I know him to be a loving father, a man of faith and a caring and compassionate friend." She said he was a man "who has devoted his entire life quietly to serving others."
(Editing by David Lindsey and Leslie Adler)