Scott M. Matheson will be remembered by most Utahns as a tough but compassionate man, sharp of wit and mind, lean of body, who liked cowboy boots and loved being governor.
The former Democratic governor died at age 61, Sunday, Oct. 7, at 5 a.m. in the University of Utah Hospital of multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood-forming system. The disease was diagnosed this past December, said hospital spokesman John Dwan, was treated and went into remission in the spring. But in June it "came on again very aggressively." The Matheson family made public the governor's illness several weeks ago. Funeral arrangements are pending.Gov. Norm Bangerter said Matheson will lie in state in the Capitol rotunda beginning Wednesday for several days of official mourning.
Matheson served two terms as governor - from January 1977 to January 1985 - in this heavily Republican state. While active in Democratic politics for years, it was the only elective position he ever held. His gubernatorial victories were never large at the ballot box, but he always won high marks from Utahns in public opinion surveys. Many remembered him fondly and mourned his passing Sunday. (See accompanying story on A2.)
Matheson's life was taken by the very disease - cancer - that has claimed the lives of a number of his southern Utah relatives and may have been caused by the open-air nuclear bomb testing of the 1950s, the impacts of which Matheson strove to uncover as governor when he helped lead the fight for more study into the effects of nuclear fallout.
"It's all speculation, of course," said his son, Scott Matheson Jr., last Friday. Matheson, his wife, Norma, and Scott Jr. were in Cedar City in the early 1950s, where the governor held his first job practicing law. "From 1952 to 1954, those were some of the heaviest years of (open air) testing, I believe, and we were there," Scott Jr. recalls. "It is an ironic wrinkle that he would have this now, after he fought so long to have those studies conducted."
Multiple myeloma is one of the cancers included in the victim compensation bill that recently passed Congress, a bill that allocates $50,000 for each victim of cancers that could have been caused by the open-air tests. "We have not thought of or discussed applying for that (compensation)," young Matheson said Friday. "We've other concerns with Dad."
Matheson was born Jan. 8, 1929, in Chicago where his father, Scott Sr., was attending law school. (Matheson, himself, was to have a long and successful legal career, before and after his governorship.) The Mathesons, originally from Parowan - where many relatives still live - returned to Cedar City and struggled in the early Depression years as the governor's father started a law practice. The election of Franklin Roosevelt as president brought the Democratic Matheson Sr. the political job of assistant U.S. attorney in Salt Lake City, where young Scott grew up.
As a boy, Matheson spent most of his summers in Parowan and southern Utah, playing with cousins, exploring the countryside and learning the hard work of the farm. Years later as governor, he amazed schoolchildren at county fairs by dropping down on a stool and milking a cow, while dressed in a suit and wearing his favorite cowboy boots.
Matheson attended Salt Lake City schools, graduating from East High School. There he met Norma Warenski. They dated for six years before marrying.
Matheson attended the University of Utah and began law school at the U. before transferring to Stanford University, where he received a law degree in 1952.
Scott and Norma returned to Cedar City for several years, where the young attorney started his practice. After the birth of Scott Jr. they decided to try the greener legal pastures of Salt Lake City, where Matheson worked as a part-time prosecutor for fellow Democrat and then-Salt Lake County Attorney Frank Moss, who would later be elected to the U.S. Senate.
"Although a reasonably hard-nosed attorney in court, I was a bit of a softie when it came to charging and collecting fees," Matheson recalled in a 1976 Deseret News profile. "I spent a great deal of time on legal problems where there was very little economic security involved."
A chance came in 1958 to join the legal department of Union Pacific Railroad, and a lifelong association began. Matheson left the railroad briefly in the late 1960s to be general counsel and vice president for Anaconda mining, but he returned to the railroad and was named general counsel in 1972.
In the meantime, Matheson and his high school sweetheart, Norma, had four children - three sons and a daughter.
When the popular, three-term Democratic governor Calvin Rampton decided not to seek a fourth term in 1976, Matheson was asked by fellow Democrats to head a search committee to find a replacement. "My name kept being put forward by others on the committee. Believe me, I didn't suggest it," he said at the time.
He got into the race with fellow Democrats John Preston Creer and John Klas. Scott Jr. was his campaign manager, using skills he'd acquired working for family friend Wayne Owens, a U.S. congressman. Even before the primary with Creer, Rampton clearly sided with Matheson. After winning the nomination, Matheson faced then-Attorney General Vernon Romney, the Republican nominee.
After 12 years of Rampton's Democratic administration, the Republicans figured they'd win the governorship in Utah. Matheson was far behind in the polls, but his straight-talking debating style, good humor and wit showed well against the more reserved Romney. Matheson came from behind to win.
Four years later, in a bitter contest with Republican Robert Wright, Matheson won a second term, despite the Ronald Reagan landslide in Utah. But that campaign soured him: He saw the negative, spiteful side of politics. He didn't like it and he didn't forget it.
Matheson loved being governor from the beginning. Upon his retirement in 1985, he said the job wore him out physically but exhilarated him emotionally and intellectually.
Until his 1983 heart attack, which came on the last day of bill signing - when he was exhausted after calling lawmakers to tell them he was vetoing their pet projects - Matheson worked six days a week and half a day on Sunday.
"There were 90 days straight when I didn't have an evening to myself," he recalled. "I didn't take a vacation for five years."
The challenges came fast and hard for the new governor. He had been in office only days when the world turned its attention to Utah and the execution of Gary Gilmore.
Matheson battled his own Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, over Central Utah Project funding. He fought like a bull terrier to keep the MX missile out of the southwestern Utah desert, insisting that the people of southern Utah had been abused enough by the federal government during open-air nuclear testing.
Matheson worried and plotted over what to do about the rising Great Salt Lake. The unpopular pumping project implemented by Bangerter was actually Matheson's solution.
Matheson was recovering from his heart attack in 1983 when a huge landslide blocked railroad and automobile traffic in Spanish Fork Canyon, creating a lake that drowned the little town of Thistle. Matheson, sporting a newly grown salt-and-pepper beard as a sign he wouldn't work himself so hard in the future, toured the scene, vowing to solve the problem.
He butted his head against the federal bureaucracy in an attempt to trade millions of scattered acres of state-owned land for large blocks of federal land - a proposal he called Project BOLD. His fights with the federal government led Matheson to write a book after he left office, "Out of Balance," about the role of governors, states and the federal government.
His style as governor was contemplative, but resolute and tough. He was a smart politician, although he was criticized by some Democrats for not being partisan enough.
As a Democratic governor facing a nondescript, Republican-controlled Legislature, Matheson often made legislators the brunt of state problems. At one St. Patrick's Day parade in downtown Salt Lake City, Matheson shouted to the crowd as he rode by in a convertible: "Get the British out of Ireland and the Legislature out of Utah." The crowd roared with approval.
He was a master at blaming the federal government for everything, from MX, to land reform, to water development. He lashed out at Carter and later at Reagan.
Matheson was loyal to those who served him well but cut loose those who failed him. When a convicted rapist was released improperly from the Utah State Prison and went on a crime spree across the state, Matheson fired not only the director of corrections but also the executive director of social services, who at that time oversaw the corrections division.
He had legendary fights with former-Attorney General Robert Hansen, some of which erupted in shouting matches during the old Board of Examiners meetings when Republicans Hansen and then-Lt. Gov. David Monson outvoted him.
Matheson's sense of humor was fine-tuned and quick. He was governor when the executive residence moved back to the refurbished Kearns Mansion on South Temple. The master bath had a most unusual shower. The turn-of-the-century contraption shot water from a dozen different directions. Matheson told friends the following story: After getting in and turning on the shower one morning, Matheson got a shot of cold water in his posterior. "I thought at first it was Bob Hansen, he was always doing that to me." Matheson ordered the shower dismantled and a modern shower installed.
A family friend says that when told of the poor prognosis for his latest chemotherapy, Matheson replied, "Hell, I had worse odds against me when I ran for governor the first time." He went ahead with the treatments.
Matheson stayed active in politics and community affairs after leaving office in 1985 and resuming his law practice at the firm of Parsons, Behle and Latimer. He was co-chairman of the National Democratic Policy Commission in 1985, traveling the nation developing a new strategy for the party. He considered, but declined, the opportunity to run against Sen. Orrin Hatch in 1988. He backed Michael Dukakis for president in 1988 and openly said he'd accept the position of secretary of the interior if Dukakis won and offered it to him.
This past year, Matheson co-chaired the state Democratic Policy Committee, which drafted the party platform, putting in long hours despite his illness. And he personally convinced the 1990 party convention to endorse the removal of sales tax from food, an initiative that will be on the November ballot.
Before contracting cancer, Matheson toyed with the idea of running for governor in 1992. He told one friend that he'd be "only 65" upon taking office again, younger than Idaho governor and friend Cecil Andrus.
Matheson was not an emotional man - not in public, at least. But he loved his family, and their closeness was well-known in the political community. On two occasions he came close to tears in talking about them. At a sparsely attended meeting with parents and teachers of the Murray School District in the late 1970s, Matheson spoke of what public education meant to him and his children. He spoke about his first son, Scott Jr., and how he had just been named a Rhodes Scholar and how proud he was of him. His voice cracked and he couldn't continue for several moments.
Matheson chose an address at the University of Utah to announce he wasn't seeking re-election in 1984. Again, he choked up as he spoke of Norma, who sat beside him, of her support during his governorship and how he couldn't have done it without her. "There," he said, regaining his composure as many in the audience wiped away tears. "I got through the hard part," he said as he touched her hand briefly.
Scott Milne Matheson:
- Jan. 8, 1929: Born in Chicago but spent his childhood years in southern Utah.
- 1946: Graduated from Salt Lake City's East High School.
- 1950: Received a bachelor of science degree with honors in political science from the University of Utah.
- 1951: Married Norma Warenski.
- 1952: Graduated from Stanford University Law School.
- 1953: Began law practice in Iron County.
- 1953-54: Deputy attorney, Iron County.
- 1954-56: Law clerk to U.S. District judge.
- 1956-58: Private practice, Salt Lake City.
- 1958: Joined legal department of Union Pacific Railroad.
- 1962: Chairman of the Young Lawyers Section, Utah State Bar.
- 1969: President of the Utah State Bar Association.
- 1969: Assistant general counsel of The Anaconda Co.
- 1972: General solicitor for Union Pacific Railroad.
- 1970-76: Member, Utah State Water Pollution Committee.
- 1977-85: Governor of the State of Utah.
- 1978: Member, Intergovernmental Task Force on Water Policy.
- 1979: Chairman, Four Corners Regional Commission.
- 1985: Private attorney, Parsons, Behle and Latimer.
- 1985: Co-chairman of National Democratic Policy Commission.
- Oct. 7, 1990: Died, Salt Lake City.
Matheson regarded as a principled, warm and dynamic leader
Calling him a tower of strength in the community, prominent individuals paid tribute to former Gov. Scott Matheson:
- Gov. NORM BANGERTER: "I am very saddened that he passed away. I met him when he was first elected governor. I was just beginning in leadership. We worked very closely together for eight years. On most major issues impacting the State of Utah, I was willing to follow his leadership. I thought his judgments were sound, and it was a pleasure to work with him. He was a man of absolute integrity. He was cordial and completely honest and upfront with me in all dealings. I have the most profound respect for him and his wife, Norma. He was a great Utahn, a great leader in our state and a good friend of mine. He is going to be missed."
- Sen. JAKE GARN, R-Utah: "I am shocked and very saddened because I have known Scott and his brothers since we were in junior high school. We were fraternity brothers at the University of Utah. I had the pleasure of serving in the Senate for the eight years Scott was governor. Even though we were of opposing political parties, we had a very, very close working relationship. I think he was a great governor and obviously one of the most popular governors we have had. So his death is a great loss to the state and a great loss to me personally because of our friendship since childhood."
- Sen. ORRIN HATCH, R-Utah: "My sympathy goes out to Norma and the family and all of those who were close friends with the governor. He was a man of great charm and wit and capacity, and I might add, ability. He had an intelligence and wisdom about him that was very beneficial in all he tried to do. He did a terrific job as governor of this state, and I personally am going to miss him. I am glad I had the privilege of getting well-acquainted with him in these later years. It was a wonderful experience."
- President EZRA TAFT BENSON, the hospitalized world leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his counselors in the First Presidency, President GORDON B. HINCKLEY and President THOMAS S. MONSON: "We were saddened to learn of the passing of Gov. Matheson, who served two terms as the chief executive of the State of Utah. He leaves a remarkable legacy of achievement, both in his chosen profession of the law and in his public service as governor. We extend to his wife, Norma, and their family our sympathy for and understanding of the great loss which is theirs. May they be blessed with the memories of a man of excellence, and with that peace which comes from the Father of us all and our Redeemer who brought the promise of of eternal life."
- Bishop WILLIAM K. WEIGAND, Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City: "Utah has lost one of its finest citizens. He was a person of principle and vision in both private and civic life. Astute and capable in public service, Gov. Matheson was also fair and evenhanded. He promoted Utah's diversity and acknowledged its minorities and non-dominant sectors.
"While he was not a member of our church, Catholics generally felt they had a friend in Scott Matheson. Among other things, he was a long-standing friend and supporter of Holy Cross Hospital.
"While Gov. Matheson's passing from this life is rightly mourned, he has left his family and his state a legacy that will long endure."
- Former Gov. CALVIN L. RAMPTON: "Scott has been my friend for most of his adult life. His father and I were friends. He worked with me closely during the 12 years I was governor, and during the next eight years rendered a great service to the people of Utah. Lucy Beth and I are heartbroken, and our hearts go out to Norma and the children."
- Idaho Gov. CECIL ANDRUS: "I knew he was very ill, but I was shocked to learn today he has passed away. He was an outstanding governor. He was great at cutting red tape. Most of all, he was just an awfully nice man. I'm sorry to see him go."
- Rep. JIM HANSEN, R-Utah: "His death was a real shock to me because he was in my office just a short time ago. He stopped by on a regular basis. We were close friends. I have known Scott since I was 8 years old. When I was speaker of the House, he was governor. I consider him one of America's finest. He was always so straight - never tried to bowl us over by his party. He always tried to get things accomplished by persuasion, logic and humor. He was probably one of the best attorney-lobbyists because he was so straight with people. He was one of those thousand points of lights that come along in the political ring. What a loss to the nation, the state and to the Democratic Party. He was one of the true shining lights. He stood taller in the eyes of politicians than many others have. I express my condolences to his great family."
- Rep. WAYNE OWENS, D-Utah: "When a close friend dies, there is always deep sadness. But when that friend was also so important to your state, your people and your party, the sadness is multiplied tenfold. Scott and Norma Matheson have been my close friends for 25 years, and the governor's passing is personally devastating to Marlene and me. I join all who knew him across Utah and across the nation in a very respectful expression of genuine sorrow. Scott was the dominant political leader of our state for a decade and an active national leader as well. His moderation, his conviction and his vision made him a governor who transcended party lines. His innovative contributions helped prepare the State of Utah for the '90s, and we are all poorer for his death. We will miss him and his clear, strong voice for sensible and progressive political action."
- Rep. HOWARD NIELSON, R-Utah: "As associate commissioner of higher education, I worked with Gov. Matheson and found him to be very reasonable and knowledgeable about higher education budgets. As a congressman, I appreciated his strong support on the Wilderness Bill, which passed in 1984, and also on the Central Utah Project. Personally I liked him and got along with him very well - despite our opposite parties."
- JAMES B. LEE, law partner in the firm Parsons, Behle and Latimer: "Scott was a tower of strength in our firm. We will sorely miss him, and the major reason for that is because he was such a good friend. We have lost a great friend."
- PETER BILLINGS, State Democratic chairman: "He was a towering person who touched many people's lives. For me and many others he made us proud to be Democrats. Even after he was governor, he gave unselfishly of himself for causes in which he believed. He will be badly missed."