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.

DePaulis, whom Atkinson said she counts as a close friend, is a person of integrity.

"I don't think there's an ounce of ego in the man. He doesn't care if he gets the credit or not because he's so concerned about the people he's trying to help. He's a true Christian and a true gentle, man," she said.

He also has a wonky side, which may explain his enthusiasm when he talks about his service on the State Tax Commission under Govs. Mike Leavitt, Olene Walker and Huntsman.

"The tax commission is a brilliant idea. It's in our Constitution. It's a constitutional office to allow the average citizen to have redress to their government on their taxes," DePaulis said.

"Tax law is a little arcane, but once you get that down and you get the process down, what you're really doing is dealing with people who are really upset about how they're being taxed."

Prior to that appointment, DePaulis served as Utah Attorney General Jan Graham's spokesman and later her chief of staff. Graham, the first Democratic woman elected to statewide office, called her top executives the "Dream Team" with DePaulis its captain.

"None of the groundbreaking programs we started would have been possible without Palmer's gift for seeing the possible and moving forward to make it real," Graham said.

DePaulis served as Salt Lake City mayor from 1985 to 1992. He was appointed to fill the unexpired term of Mayor Ted Wilson, who left the position to lead the Hinckely Institute of Politics. DePaulis, who had served on the City Council and worked as the city's public works department prior to his mayoral appointment, was twice elected to the position.

Prior to public life, DePaulis honed his business skills as the head of an insurance company. That experience served him well, he said, when the state, county and local officials joined together to create the Economic Development Corp. of Utah. The goal of that effort, which continues today, is to help diversify the state economy, which during DePaulis' term as mayor was heavily dependent on Kennecott Copper and defense spending.

"I think we made some really big strides to get where we are today. We have a very vibrant economy today that is well diversified," he said.

Looking ahead

DePaulis said is anxious to travel with his wife, who retired from an administrative position at Primary children's Hospital three years ago. He enjoys tinkering with his cars, which include the 1965 Mustang he drove from Michigan when he relocated to Utah to start married life. He also owns a 1959 Chevy Apache pickup, which he used for a painting business to help support him while he was in college.

The DePaulises also plan to spend more time with family and enjoy time at their mountain cabin.

DePaulis said he is retiring on his own terms. Earlier this year, upon learning that Lt. Gov. Greg Bell had ordered an audit of the Division of Child and Family Services' handling of a child welfare case, DePaulis wrote a letter to Gov. Gary Herbert that said, in part, that Bell was not convinced by assurances that the case was being handled appropriately.

“As a result, however, I believe that the Lt. Governor questions my integrity, the integrity of my Division of Child and Family Services director, and some of my staff. I now find myself at odds with the Lt. Governor, and he expresses no confidence in me,” he wrote.

The letter suggested the possibility that DePaulis may retire soon but he decided, once the issue was resolved that he would stay on the job. He committed to stay until a national search could be performed to hire his successor. He is also helping with the transition.

DePaulis said he did not want to elaborate on the issue saying it worked itself out and "I moved on."

Life in the public eye can be humbling in many respects but DePaulis said he took comfort, and humor, in his predecessor Ted Wilson's advice.

"He said, 'People want to put you on a pedestal all the time but they really don't like you to enjoy it.' I always thought that was good advice."

DePaulis, however, was warmly received at the recent reception to mark his retirement.

"As usual, Palmer kept his remarks to four or five sentences. He really doesn't like the spotlight being on him," Atkinson said.

"But he deserves the spotlight, not only because he's a great human being but because of all he's accomplished in his life. He's made a difference in thousands of people's lives because of the way he's performed in all the positions he's held."

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