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Mark Shurtleff's tenure marked by personal and professional challenges

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 25 2012 1:40 p.m. MST

Shurtleff is unapologetic about his "RINO" — Republican In Name Only — stands on some social issues. His conscience wouldn't let him toe the party line on immigration or nondiscrimination laws. He couldn't relate to the negative stereotypes spewed by hardliners.

"That's the problem with Republicans and the party and party dogma that is harmful to our nation, frankly," he said. "I'm a party guy, but not ahead of what's good for America."

Quoting Atticus Finch from "To Kill a Mockingbird," he says, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

Another well-known conservative activist, Utah Eagle Forum president Gayle Ruzicka, also had run-ins with Shurtleff. While they agreed on Second Amendment rights, they tangled over proposed laws prohibiting violent and sexually explicit video game sales to children. Ruzicka saw the measure as pro-family; Shurtleff viewed it as a free speech matter.

"He wasn't considered on a lot of issues as the most conservative person in the world," Ruzicka said.

Still, she said, Shurtleff always accepted and returned her phone calls. She said they formed an "unusual friendship" where they can disagree but remain friends.

Ruzicka can relate to Shurtleff in a personal way as well. She had a son who died of a drug overdose. Shurtleff is a father of five children, including three adopted from drug-addicted mothers. One of them, Danielle, suffers from depression and tried to kill herself.

"When you pray for somebody, you can overlook a lot of things," Ruzicka said.

It was that sentiment that Shurtleff said helped him through a series of life-threatening health issues.

Catholic friends lit candles for him at Mass. A Jewish friend wrote his name on the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Navajo Indians performed a blessing for him. Mormons put his name on temple prayer rolls.

In 2007, he mangled is left leg in a motorcycle crash while practicing for a charity ride for fallen police officers. After months of broken bones not healing, doctors placed his leg in metal halos with wires and pins being used to affix the bones to the rings. Had that failed, amputation was the next option.

During what turned out to be an extremely painful 18-month recovery, the attorney general became dependent on painkillers. He returned home from work one night to find his wife, M'Liss, had flushed his OxyContin and oxycodone. He protested that he was tapering, but she insisted he go cold turkey.

Shurtleff went through withdrawals as a result.

"I can totally empathize with a drug addict and how hard it is to rehab," he said, indicating relief is always just a pill away.

"You know, like that," he said snapping his fingers, "I can feel on top of the world. How do they do it? How? There's nothing harder than kicking a drug addiction. Man, it just really, really taught me something."

Living with pain

Shurtleff, who has undergone 25 orthopedic surgeries of one kind or another, says not a day goes by that his leg doesn't hurt.

But the pain doesn't slow him down much. More than once, a groggy Shurtleff ran the office from a hospital bed, sometimes sending goofy emails to colleagues. Torgensen said Shurtleff was more engaged than some past attorneys general who were healthy.

While the Harley-Davidson wreck nearly cost Shurtleff his leg, stage 3 colon cancer in 2010 almost took his life. Shurtleff said he thought he was invulnerable until his oncologist told him he had a 50/50 chance of being dead in five years.

Shurtleff summed up his feelings at the gloomy news with lines from the T.S. Eliot poem "The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

"And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, and in short, I was afraid."

As chemotherapy ravaged his body, an emotional cancer strained his marriage of 32 years in January.

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