George Nickas of the Utah Wilderness Association was huddling with other environmentalists in an office room of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., and as the meeting broke up, they kept talking as they moved into the hallway.
"Mo Udall walked out of his office," Nickas said. "He looked at me - I was standing by the door. He said, `Do you know anything about television? I'm having trouble with a television.' I said, `All I know is how to turn them on and turn them off.' And he said, `Well, if you can turn one off, you're just the guy I need!' "Udall dragged Nickas into his office and to a television set, which was broadcasting the proceedings on the floor of the House. He explained that try as he might, he couldn't turn the thing off. But the Utahn was no help.
"Neither one of us could figure out how to get it turned off!" Nickas said. "He laughed and I laughed, and I don't know if he ever got the TV turned off that night."
That same portrait of Udall - a warm, informal and witty man - was uniformly drawn in interviews Friday with Utahns who know him personally. And many had dealings with Udall, since he was chairman of the powerful House Interior Committee, which oversees national parks and other federal lands.
On Friday, Udall, a House Democrat from Arizona, announced he is retiring from Congress after 30 years. He is suffering from Parkinson's disease, which has made his life uncomfortable for many years, and from the effects of a fall suffered at his home on Jan. 6.
Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, is one of Udall's close friends.
"He had the most legislative talent of anybody that I've ever known or worked with," Owens said, adding Udall was more fun than anybody to spend time with, from an hour to a trip, "simply because he had an immense store of humor and always saw humor in every situation. Even though he was totally substantive, he used humor as a tool, and had the quickest wit of anybody I've ever known."
Owens said Udall's retirement is a tragedy because he could have served another 15 years, "but for the fact that Parkinson's was closing down his body and ultimately taking away his mental acuity."
Pete Parry, now retired, was superintendent for Canyonlands and Arches national parks and Natural Bridges National Monument. He remembered that Udall "used to come out here; he'd sneak out, sometimes he'd take a little vacation here."
He remembers Udall as "a great individual. You've never met anybody with such a tremendous sense of humor than that guy had." He called him "dedicated" and "brilliant."
Terri Martin of the National Parks and Conservation Association said when Udall came to Utah to chair a hearing on a proposed high-level nuclear waste repository near Canyonlands, she was impressed with him. "In the face of a disease that degenerated his body, he had such a strong spirit, and that is why he was a leader for so long.
"Despite this disease that clearly zapped his physical strength, he came out, took a look at this site, chaired this hearing with command, humor, direction and clarity."
Kenley W. Brunsdale, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress last year, knew Udall both as a fellow lawyer in the fallout suit and while Brunsdale was a staff member for Owens.
"Even his enemies loved him," Brunsdale said. "Nobody could dislike him with his kindness and his kind of loving approach that was made effective by his incredible sense of humor. He could win over almost anyone."
Bob Waite, the father of Great Basin National Park, corresponded with Udall over establishing that park. He was "a marvelous man. He'd bend over backwards to help you."
"His health had been deteriorating for several years," said James Parker, state director for the Bureau of Land Management. "I think most people would have thrown in the towel and said this was too much of a bother, but he really hung in there and wanted to do his duty," he said.