MURRAY— Everywhere he goes, people want to open doors for Dave Nicponski. It’s just the way it is; part of the territory when you no longer have the use of your legs.
He doesn’t need the help. Heaven knows, on his own, for over half his life, he’s been negotiating barriers much more formidable than doors, ever since the sports car he was driving slammed into a tree when he was 25, snapping his L1 and L2 discs and paralyzing him from the waist down.
Still, there is a poetic element to people hustling to help him out, since opening doors is what Nicponski does for a living.
For 30 years, he has been a fixture as a lobbyist extraordinaire at the Utah State Capitol. His diverse client list includes, among others, Intermountain Healthcare, the Humane Society of Utah, the Unified Fire Authority, the Unified Police Department and the Utah Dental Association. On top of that, for the past five years, he’s served as a Murray city councilman. In his off hours, there are all his constituents in Murray City Council District 1 to take care of too. The day rarely dawns when Dave isn’t doing someone’s bidding.
“I’m a people person,” he says. “I enjoy working with others, helping get things done. I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to get to do what I do.”
Good fortune was in short supply, however, on that fateful night in 1981 when he fell asleep at the wheel, and they had to cut him out of the Mazda RX7 and rush him to the hospital, where he spent several weeks in intensive care. When he finally emerged from the fog, on the living side of the line, the doctor shook his head and told him, sorry, he would never walk again.
Life had been only perpetual motion to that point. He excelled in football at Skyline High School and won a scholarship to play for Snow College, where he also became editor of the Snow Drift, the campus newspaper. From there, he attended the University of Utah and then Westminster College where he graduated in business administration and economics. He put himself through school working for the Salt Lake City Police Department, including a six-month stint in undercover narcotics.
His first job after college was as town manager at Alta, not because of the pay or luxurious living conditions (he lived on the second floor of the employee housing bunk house) but because “I thought it would be cool to live at a ski resort.”
For two years he oversaw the town’s public works, skied at lunchtime, watched the ski company shoot down avalanches and helped troubleshoot problems as they arose.
All that came to an abrupt halt when the car slammed into the tree.
The first clue Dave Nicponski was not going to go away lightly was when the people at the Craig Clinic in Denver brought him a wheelchair, and he pushed it aside.
“They wanted me to start in a wheelchair and just get used to it,” he recalls. “But I told them no, I’m going to brace.”
He built up Utah’s strongest shoulders and forearms as he mastered bracing. For the next 30 years he “walked” around the Capitol – and through Disneyland a couple of times — while using the wheelchair only at home at night. It wasn’t until five years ago that his lower body atrophied to the point that he went to the chair full time.
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Bracing wasn’t the only thing Nicponski got good at after the car wreck. Out of necessity, he discovered he had a talent for lobbying. His first client was himself.
Unable to return to the physically demanding work at Alta, or as a policeman, he needed a new job. Getting one proved difficult. In interview after interview, he recalls, “You can tell when you’re interviewing that they’re not going to hire you and it’s going to have a lot to do with your disability.”
He went to Plan B. As a cop, he’d been involved in a dramatic Christmas Eve firefight with a drug addict high on drugs who was holding a family of four hostage. When the man raised his gun, Nicponski raised his, hitting the perp three times in the face and chest, sending him first to the hospital, then to prison.
A friend Nicponski played football with in high school called and said his father wanted to hear all the details about the firefight if Dave would drop by the house. Dave dropped by, and after talking through the night, the friend’s dad told Dave if there was ever anything he could do for him, don’t hesitate to ask.
The friend’s dad, Ernie Mettenet, was president of the giant aerospace company Hercules.
Nicponski called in the favor.
“He wasn’t telling a lie,” says Nicponski. “I got the job, and enjoyed every minute of it.”
He started in the financial section but was soon transferred into government relations/public affairs. As Hercules merged with Thiokol and became ATK Aerospace, Nicponski became the company’s main lobbyist and media spokesman.
When he left in 2005 to start his own lobbying firm, Dave Nicponski Associates, ATK kept him on as a consultant, a position he holds to this day.
Mettenet and Hercules put him back in the workforce, but it was a woman who put him back into life. Her name was Geri, and he met her at the Murray High School swimming pool, where she was a lifeguard and Nicponski was a workout regular. They talked, “one thing led to another” and they were married.
“I’ll be honest with you, that was the very best thing that happened to me,” says Nicponski. “I was totally without a compass. I mean I was just so totally lost. I don’t know what I’d have done without her.”
Together, he and Geri have raised four daughters.
After interacting with politicians for more than three decades, Nicponski became one himself in 2011, when he was elected to the Murray City Council. In a cliffhanger, he won by two votes. In 2015, he was elected to a second four-year term, this time by a more comfortable 97-vote margin.
He revolves his time between his lobbying work with the state Legislature and the hours he spends on Murray politics where he’s the one getting lobbied.
“I just have a passion for this community,” he says in explaining why he ran for office. “I like working for Murray. It’s got great people. It’s got a strong tax base, so we can do things. We can accomplish things. I like being able to do that, I like finding a way to get past the challenges and complete a project.”
His life is proof of that. Besides the broken back, he’s battled past bladder cancer (2000) and open-heart surgery (2013). And still, he stands, at 60, never looking backward, only forward.
“Whatever happens to you, you have to move on,” says Nicponski. “In my life, I’ve found there are lots of really good people out there who want to help you, and that’s great, but I also know there are some things you have to do yourself. You just have to pick yourself up and carry on.”