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About Utah: Days of '47 community organizers focus on the present

Published: Monday, July 22 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Six years ago, when he agreed to join the Days of ’47 organization, Greg James, now the group’s executive vice president, ran into something he never expected.

It wasn’t the parade – one of America’s largest – or the rodeo – one of America’s feistiest – or the pageants or the concerts or the constant references to pioneers.

He saw all that coming.

It was the diversity.

Anticipating a homogenous organizing committee filled with people who could trace their heritage back to Brigham Young or Heber C. Kimball or maybe Porter Rockwell – well-known Mormon pioneers who first settled Utah in 1847 – he was met with a much wider array of personalities, attitudes and even denominations.

“One of the first things I learned is that the Days of ’47 Incorporated is its own entity, beholden to no one,” says Greg, “It’s not a state thing and it’s not a church thing and it’s full of people who are involved because they care about the community, period.”

There are 35 people on the board, he notes, “And I can’t tell you which religion half of them are because religion isn’t what it’s about.”

What it’s about is “the coming together as a community to celebrate our heritage.”

That heritage is tied strongly to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, James is quick to acknowledge, and he further acknowledges that the LDS Church makes significant contributions and lends considerable support to the various festivities put on every summer by the Days of ’47 committee.

But it pleases James, 66, a lifelong Utahn and LDS member who recently retired as vice president and general manager of KSL, that every effort is made to make the celebration as inclusive as possible.

He points to two experiences from his past that influenced and motivated him to become involved with a broad community-wide effort.

The first was when a friend who had moved to Utah, married here and lived here for many years told Greg he was moving back to his hometown of Atlanta to retire. “You have a good sense of family in Utah,” the friend had said, “but not a strong sense of community.”

The second was when he took a trip to Germany for KSL to finalize the purchase of a digital TV antennae from an engineering firm there. He was in a meeting with three engineers, all PhDs, about to conclude the deal, when he needed to leave the meeting for a moment. When he returned he discovered an empty room. The security guard in the foyer had a message for him: “The doctors said to tell you they’ll see you in the morning. They have community theater tonight and couldn’t be late. We quit at 5.”

Then the guard added, “In America you live to work, here we work to live.”

“I thought that was an interesting way to put it,” says Greg. “But I think it’s kinda true.”

It was shortly after returning from Germany that the Days of ’47 committee called to solicit his services.

“To me,” he says, “this is a celebration that done right touches the community in significant ways that can really help bring us all closer together.”

The origin traditions are important for the celebration, he says, and that includes the longstanding pioneer theme, but beyond paying tribute to those who settled the Great Salt Lake Valley in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s (working definition: before the railroad came), if he had his way anyone would be considered a pioneer who has overcome challenges and carved out a meaningful life.

In other words, all of us.

It’s Greg’s contention that Founders Day – which is what July 24 would be called in other states – provides a perfectly good excuse to use the past to celebrate the present. Today’s community, not yesterday’s, is where the focus should be.

Fortunately, he’s found he’s not alone in his thinking.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: benson@deseretnews.com

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