Difference maker: Palmer DePaulis bringing 30 years of public service to a close

Published: Sunday, Nov. 3 2013 11:30 a.m. MST

Palmer DePaulis packs up the contents of his office at the Department of Human Services in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. DePaulis, Salt Lake City's first Catholic mayor, is retiring as executive director of the Department of Human Services.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The name of a housing development to serve chronically homeless Utahns was a closely held state secret.

So much so that then-Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. ordered the honoree to attend the groundbreaking ceremony for the facility. An unsuspecting Palmer DePaulis, then serving as the executive director of the Utah Department of Community and Culture, complied with his boss' request.

"We had to do that or he would have been on the phone saying, 'I really appreciate that, but this can't happen.' There's no way that he would have gone for that. We just kind of had to do it," said Matt Minkevitch, executive director of The Road Home.

The Road Home facility, which provides wrap-around service for formerly homeless individuals and families, is named Palmer Court.

It's not that DePaulis shuns recognition, but he is admittedly more comfortable working behind the scenes.

"I like to lead things. I don't need to be in front of things. You get the job done, and you do what you need to do. I like the leading part" of public service, DePaulis said in an interview in advance of his retirement.

The first Roman Catholic to serve as mayor of Salt Lake City, DePaulis is capping three decades of public service as executive director of the Utah Department of Human Services.

Helping others

In some respects, the position brought DePaulis full circle. As mayor, DePaulis led the process to locate the Salt Lake Community Shelter along Rio Grande Street.

"We were literally on the other side of the tracks. This was pre-Gateway," Minkevitch said of the decade-old mall and housing complex.

Still, the plan was controversial and has posed some challenges for the housing and business development that has sprung up in the succeeding years.

At the time, it was a collaborative effort that brought together government, nonprofit, religious and business leaders.

"Palmer was not a puppeteer that guided everything over into that corner, but it was consensus building," Minkevitch said. "He was the team leader that brought all these thoughtful minds and voices together. They looked each other in the eye and said, 'This is the way to go about it.' It epitomizes, really, how Palmer works."

Appointed state human services director in 2010, DePaulis has overseen more 4,000 employees who serve and support the state's most vulnerable adults, children and families.

The position has been a perfect fit, DePaulis said, because it has allowed him to marry his government, private sector and personal compassion for the less fortunate. As a young man, DePaulis studied to be a Catholic priest.

While his life took a different course after meeting his wife of 44 years, Jeanne, at a civil rights march in Arlington, Va., his religious training and faith has guided his actions as a public servant, he said.

"I think it makes you, from the perspective of the human condition, appreciate how we're all joined together. We all have to watch out for each other and do the things that allow people to be the fullest person they can possibly be," DePaulis said.

A tough act to follow

Pamela Atkinson, a long-time advocate for people in poverty, who was a member of the search committee for DePaulis' successor, said various constituents have asked if the state could "just clone Palmer. That's really one of the highest compliments you can pay someone, she said.

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