Sen. Ted Kennedy is being remembered fondly by many Utahns — and the state is even lowering flags in his honor — which may be surprising, since he was a liberal politician often vilified in the conservative state.

In fact, Steve Owens, son of the late Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, who had been Kennedy's chief of staff, said he remembers Kennedy "used to ask my dad what he could do to help him in his races. My dad would say the best thing he could do was simply stay away."

Steve Owens said Utahns might be surprised to know how much Kennedy liked Utah and how often he visited, and how often he met with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"Ted loved to come and go on river trips in Utah. I remember spending a week with him in 1978 on a trip from Moab to Lake Powell," Owens said. "He was hilarious. He was the center of attention, even on a river trip. He was a big personality. He loved people."

Demonstrating how Utahns would not expect that Kennedy would visit and like their state, Owens recalled how his father liked to tell how he was once grounded on a sandbar in Lake Powell with Kennedy and actor Robert Redford, and how he had unsuccessfully tried to hail several boats for help.

"It was getting dark, and he really needed help, so he yelled to one boat, 'Hey, I've got Ted Kennedy and Robert Redford in my boat.' The reply in the darkness said, 'Yea, and I've got Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew in mine,' " Steve Owens said.

Owens said his father also insisted on Kennedy meeting LDS Church presidents when he came to town.

"Once, (former church president) Harold B. Lee told him that Catholics make very good Mormons. Everyone chuckled. As Kennedy was walking out with my dad, he said, 'You know, I don't think he was kidding, was he?' " Owens said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch also remembered Kennedy fondly. He said, "I lost a treasured friend. … I shall deeply mourn him."

Also mourning Kennedy was Mitt Romney, former head of the 2002 Olympics in Utah, who once ran against Kennedy for the Senate and worked with him while serving as governor of Massachusetts.

"The loss of Senator Ted Kennedy is a sad event for America," Romney said. "The last son of Rose Fitzgerald and Joseph Kennedy was granted a much longer life than his brothers, and he filled those years with endeavor and achievement that would have made them proud.

"In 1994, I joined the long list of those who ran against Ted and came up short. But he was the kind of man you could like even if he was your adversary," he said.

"I came to admire Ted enormously for his charm and sense of humor — qualities all the more impressive in a man who had known so much loss and sorrow," Romney added. "I will always remember his great personal kindness and the fighting spirit he brought to every cause he served and every challenge he faced. I was proud to know Ted Kennedy as a friend, and today, my family and I mourn the passing of this big-hearted, unforgettable man."

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, also praised Kennedy, "On those occasions when I had the opportunity to work with him on a particular issue, I grew to appreciate the depth of his commitment to his country and his principles. It's clear to all that the Senate has lost an icon whose lifetime of service will be long remembered."

Even Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert, who did not know Kennedy, praised him and ordered that flags at all state offices be at half-staff until sunset on Sunday in his honor.

"Senator Kennedy dedicated his life to public service, to the benefit of all Americans. He was a passionate and tireless advocate, and we can learn from his selfless example and unwavering devotion. As a country and a state, we honor his lifetime of service," Herbert said.