As a Democratic governor in a heavily Republican state, Scott M. Matheson faced some heavy odds. Yet he managed to win elections handily, becoming one of Utah's few chief executives with national stature and one of the most popular governors in Utah history. Matheson, who died this past weekend at the relatively early age of 61, made an enduring contribution to his state and nation.

Matheson served as the state's chief executive from January 1977 to January 1985. Many believe he could have easily been elected to a third term as was Democratic Gov. Calvin Rampton before him.There were several unsuccessful efforts to persuade him to be a candidate for the U.S. Senate, and many times he was regarded as an exceptional nominee for the president's cabinet, especially the Department of the Interior.

Matheson was general solicitor for the Union Pacific Railroad at the time he ran for governor of Utah 1976. Few predicted that Matheson, a political novice, would be able to defeat both the more experienced Democratic rival, John Preston Creer, or two-term Republican Attorney-General Vernon B. Romney. But he did - and convincingly.

He was a man of principle who was respected by people of both political parties - despite occasionally being on the opposite side of a majority of Utahns on some issues. Somehow, that did not hurt his popularity.

Immediately after his election, he tackled the state's problems with gusto and made no effort to disguise his love for the governorship, which he found emotionally and physically exilharating.

Although he was known as a modest man with an abundance of good humor, he was also articulate in political debate and could be eloquent in defending the state and its citizens against what he regarded as unfair treatment by the federal government. He spoke out forcefully against proposed transfer of 888 Weteye nerve gas bombs to Tooele. He took the nuclear fallout issue to Washington, D.C., where he used the force of his office and personality to secure a federal grant so that the University of Utah could study the link between nuclear fallout and cancer.

He also fought the federal government on everything from MX missile basing, to land reform, to water development. Locally, he worked hard to provide property tax relief and increased expenditures for education.

A devoted family man to his beloved wife, Norma, and his four children, Scott M. Matheson, one of Utah's greatest governors, will be remembered with fondness by his native state.