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Utahns remember Margaret Thatcher from 1996 visit

Published: Tuesday, July 28 2015 9:34 a.m. MDT

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meets with LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1996 on a visit to Utah. (, Deseret News Archives) British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meets with LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1996 on a visit to Utah. (, Deseret News Archives)

SALT LAKE CITY — Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher spent a week in Utah in March 1996, marking a U.K. Utah Festival by attending everything from a tour of the downtown ZCMI to a performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

"The Iron Lady" also spoke about the world's moral challenges at BYU, where she received an honorary doctorate degree in a special convocation led by then-LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley.

"Yours is a powerful voice," President Hinckley said after Thatcher's speech, calling it "so stirring and challenging, some might wish that she would run for the office of president of the United States." 

The Deseret News editorialized after Thatcher's visit that the conservative British leader was "a sophisticated and genteel woman and legendary politician in a nation that takes its politics extremely seriously" who had much in common with Utahns.

President Merrill J. Bateman and President Gordon B. Hinckley sit with Margaret Thatcher before Mrs. Thatcher receives an honorary doctorate, March 5, 1996. (Mark A. Philbrick, BYU) President Merrill J. Bateman and President Gordon B. Hinckley sit with Margaret Thatcher before Mrs. Thatcher receives an honorary doctorate, March 5, 1996. (Mark A. Philbrick, BYU)

Jon Huntsman Sr., who hosted Thatcher and her husband, Denis, at his Deer Valley home during their time in Utah, agreed.

The billionaire industrialist and philanthropist recalled Thatcher touring his office in the Huntsman Corp. headquarters and spotting a plaque inscribed with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' proclamation on the family.

"When she finished reading it, she said, 'That is a brilliantly written statement'" and asked for a copy to use in her own future speeches, Huntsman Sr. told the Deseret News. "She felt very, very comfortable in Utah."

He said Thatcher, who dedicated the headquarters and also toured the Huntsman Cancer Institute, spent many hours discussing history, politics and other topics with the Huntsmans at meals and during walks in the mountains.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meets with Gov. Mike Leavitt in 1996 on a visit to Utah. (, State of Utah) British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meets with Gov. Mike Leavitt in 1996 on a visit to Utah. (, State of Utah)

Participating in those discussions was Jon Huntsman Jr., who went on to become a Utah governor and a GOP candidate for president in 2012.

"She thought he was really one of the future leaders of America," Huntsman Sr. said. 

He said her firm opinions on world leaders, including her self-described "soulmate," former President Ronald Reagan, and international politics, underscored her "Iron Lady" reputation for being strong-willed.

But Huntsman Sr. also saw another side of Thatcher, whom he kept in touch with over the years through written correspondence and trips to England, where his company owned a chemical plant.

"She was just a very personable, warm, gracious lady," Huntsman Sr. said.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meets with LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1996 on a visit to Utah. (, Deseret News Archives) British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meets with LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1996 on a visit to Utah. (, Deseret News Archives)

He recalled her nervousness before she stepped out onto a stage to speak at one the many events she participated in while in Utah.

"Backstage, she said, 'Now, Jon, how does my hair look? Do I have any lint on any of my clothing? Is my dress wrinkled? Do I look OK? How does my face look? — just like a little girl going on stage for the first time," Huntsman Sr. said.

Even though Thatcher was powerful, "she had no pretenses about her," he said.

"It was my great privilege to have known Margaret Thatcher," Huntsman Jr. said in a statement. "Her life exemplified principled and pragmatic leadership, for which Great Britain and the world are better off."

His daughter Liddy posted a copy of a handwritten note Huntsman Jr. received from Thatcher in 1997 about "the sad news that your daughter, Liddy, has diabetes. This must be a great blow to the whole family, and I know you will be gathering around Liddy to help her with support and great affection."

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meets with LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1996 on a visit to Utah. (, Deseret News Archives) British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meets with LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1996 on a visit to Utah. (, Deseret News Archives)

Jerold Ottley, the former director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, shared a copy of a letter Thatcher sent about a special performance featuring British-themed music in her honor, including "Danny Boy" as well as English hymns.

"I envy the citizens of Salt Lake City in being able to hear that wonderful choir every Sunday morning," Thatcher wrote, noting "everyone was perfect" and that she and her husband were "both delighted and touched" by the choice of music.

Ottley said both the choir and the audience gathered for the performance applauded Thatcher when she was introduced as a guest.

"Well, of course it's exciting for us," he said, even though Thatcher had to leave immediately after the performance.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meets with LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1996 on a visit to Utah. (, Deseret News Archives) British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meets with LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1996 on a visit to Utah. (, Deseret News Archives)

Former Gov. Mike Leavitt, who welcomed Thatcher at the state Capitol during her visit, said he took advantage of every opportunity to talk politics with her during her packed schedule.

"She was conservative to the core," Leavitt said.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, met Thatcher as a law student when she spoke at BYU. Lee said he and his wife chatted with the former prime minister and her husband about both couples being the parents of twins.

Lee, whose late father, Rex E. Lee, a former BYU president and U.S. solicitor general, was honored at the same BYU convocation, said he still remembers her telling the audience "in statesmanship, you can't always go out and tell people what they want to hear."

"I think about that all the time," Lee said. "I think she was dead on."

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meets with LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1996 on a visit to Utah. (, Deseret News Archives) British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meets with LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1996 on a visit to Utah. (, Deseret News Archives)

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, described Thatcher in a statement as "a transcendent figure who made the world a better place," who "liberated Britain's economy with conservative reforms" that continue today.

Utah State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis, however, had a much different view of Thatcher. His tweet shortly after her death was announced, "Thatcher Dead. Ding Dong," attracted many negative comments.

"I don't think she's a wicked witch," Dabakis said. "She will receive many accolades. I just want people to remember she destroyed many, many families and their ability to make a living."

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