Obert C. Tanner, Utah philanthropist, philosopher and industrialist, received the National Medal of Arts at a luncheon meeting at the White House Tuesday. It was presented by President and Mrs. Reagan, not only to Tanner, but to 11 others, including writer Saul Bellow, actress Helen Hayes and architect I.M. Pei.
It was the fourth annual presentation of the medal, designed to honor those who have encouraged the arts in the United States and offered inspiration to others through distinguished achievement, support or patronage. It was originated in 1984 by Reagan and is given yearly to no more than 12 people who, in the president's judgment, are deserving of special recognition.The award was a complete surprise to Obert Tanner, a self-effacing man who is not interested in appearing boastful. When a "lady from the White House" called him to announce his selection, she was afraid that he did not properly understand the significance of the honor. She said, "Mr. Tanner, this is really quite an honor for someone WAY OUT THERE."
That was amusing to Tanner, but he considers it an excellent indication that this award should really be considered a gift for Utah and to those around him who have been an important part of his own contributions to the arts.
Over the years, Tanner has supported many art forms, including literary, visual, design, music and dance.
He was chairman of the commission that planned the construction of Salt Lake City's Symphony Hall, the Utah Art Center and the restoration of the city's historic Capitol Theatre.
His personal gifts are legion and include a fountain, offices and the interior decoration of Symphony Hall. He regularly donates to the Utah Opera Company and Ballet West. He has endowed the "Gift of Music" biennial concerts, featuring performances on Temple Square by the Utah Symphony with the Tabernacle Choir.
He has donated funds for more than 30 fountains to communities, hospitals, colleges and universities around the country, the best known of these at Stanford, Harvard and Linacre College, Oxford, England. His personal favorite is the one in the plaza in front of the LDS Church Office Building in Salt Lake City, and he is planning additional fountains for Primary Children's Hospital and for BYU-Hawaii.
Tanner's fondness for fountains stems from his belief that "they are democratic - everyone likes them. There is no controversy in a fountain." As a university professor for more than half a century, he had his share of controversy.
In 1970, Obert Tanner and his wife, Grace, donated to Southern Utah State College in Cedar City what is now considered the world's most accurate replica of an Elizabethan playhouse. The gift literally saved the Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City, which has become enormously popular in recent years.
Visitors to Zion National Park are able to attend artistic productions at the spacious O.C. Tanner Amphitheater near the park entrance. He has established 11 philosophy library rooms at prestigious colleges and universities.
He has also endowed more than a dozen lectureships, including the world-renowned "Tanner Lectures on Human Values" given annually at Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge, University of Michigan, Stanford, University of Utah, University of California, Yale and Princeton. He is especially proud of these lectures, which have been acclaimed worldwide for their contributions to knowledge and understanding.
Yet Obert Tanner is embarrassed to be called a philanthropist, a term he says should be used to describe such past greats as Carnegie, Ford and Rockefeller. "I am simply a person who likes to share what I have."
Born in Farmington in 1904, Tanner grew up in a poor farm family, the youngest of 10 children. He financed his education by thinning sugar beets, building an ore dump, cleaning furnaces and selling high school class rings. He was educated at the University of Utah, Stanford and Harvard. He taught at Stanford and is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Utah. He is also founder and chairman of the O.C. Tanner Company, a company specializing in jewelry manufacturing with annual sales in excess of $100 million.
The intriguing dichotomy of a philosophy professor who is also an industrialist is one that University of Utah Professor Sterling McMurrin calls "the several lives of O.C. Tanner." How Tanner managed to become so successful in business "while all the time disguising himself as a university philosophy professor is something of a mystery even to his closest friends."
According to McMurrin, "not since the father of Greek philosophy, Thales, who in the sixth century B.C. managed to corner the wine industry in the Eastern Mediterranean, has a philosopher pulled off such a coup." McMurrin concludes: "At the university he was Obert Tanner, the champion of academic freedom; downtown he was O.C. Tanner, the manufacturing jeweler. And many of his colleagues and students were not aware that Obert and O.C. were one and the same person."
Tanner has written 10 books, including three on character education and three on the New Testament. Even though he has been retired from the university for 10 years, he still spends four hours every morning writing, his "greatest love." Next month a revision of a book he wrote 50 years ago, a technical and scholarly book on the New Testament, will be published by the University of Utah Press.
The core of Tanner's reputation as a philanthropist is his overwhelming love of beauty. Plato, he said, asserted that the greatest values are goodness, truth and beauty. "I have great respect for goodness and truth, but as far as I'm concerned, the greatest of these is beauty. Beauty is the supreme value in my life. I love it wherever I see it - this room, the face of a child, or a friend, music, the mountains."
This also applies to romance. "My wife says I think all women are beautiful. Even if this is slightly exaggerated, I do love to catch the twinkle in their eyes."
Tied closely to his love of beauty is Tanner's love of Utah, which, he believes, is located in the midst of great natural beauty, including five national parks. To understand Utah's greatness, you must travel the world and make some comparisons, he says, and Utah passes the test.
"People who live in Utah," he said, "are very fortunate." They have great cultural advantages such as the symphony, the opera, the Shakespearean Festival and others. "In my opinion, the Tabernacle Choir is the finest in the world." He also considers the University of Utah to be one of the finest institutions in the country. But to bring about such success, it takes exceptionally talented people, such as Chase Peterson at the U., Joseph Silverstein at the symphony and Glade Peterson at the opera.
In Tanner's opinion, balance is another of life's great needs. "The Greeks said nothing in excess, nothing extreme; achieve balance in the right proportion. I like to be well-balanced, and I think most people do. There is nothing special about ME."
In achieving that balance, Tanner has nurtured a long-term interest in the United Nations and sits on its council. He once considered running for political office, but because of his wife's opposition, he declined. Now he is sure that was the right decision because by nature he is not a partisan person.
That, after all, is the nature of the academic mind. Numerous people in Utah remember Tanner most for his stimulating teaching. McMurrin says that the "academic Tanner seems to have been obsessed with the ancient injunction that the unexamined life is not worth living." Tanner has always been determined to hear and examine all sides of a question. He says, "Objectivity is the key to the life of a university."Comment on this story
Tanner remembers some teachers who took strong positions. "If a teacher takes a strong position, he lacks something. Students are entitled to objectivity and to learn different viewpoints. I never told a student what I believed. Never! And I never asked a student what he believed. I didn't indoctrinate. YOU think it out. I'm just ONE person!"
A youthful 84, Obert Tanner appears remarkably healthy, a man of keen, vibrant intellect, who walks now for exercise instead of playing 18 holes of golf. He seems excited about the jewelry factory and enjoyed taking me on a rare tour of its facilities. It is a building with a fountain of its own, and noted for its exceptional beauty. It is designed to properly house its creations and to make its employees happy and productive.
Yet human beings are more important to Obert Tanner than money or those things money can buy. Although he accepts and operates within the capitalist system, he is not interested in talking about profits. As McMurrin said, "Unlike so many in today's society, he does not use money to make more money."
Instead, he uses it to create beauty and to benefit humanity. Unassuming and reticent about publicity, Obert Tanner seems an especially worthy recipient of the National Medal of Arts.