Ted Wilson was born and reared in Salt Lake City. After his father died when Ted was 14, Wilson started working after school to supplement the family income.

He attended South High School and then the University of Utah and was a cheerleader at both institutions. He admits to being lax in his studies, more interested in having a good time, until he met his future wife, Kathy Carling, married and settled down. After graduating with a teaching degree, the Wilsons moved to Switzerland, where Wilson taught skiing and learned mountain climbing.They returned to Utah after their second child was born, and Wilson started teaching at Skyline High School. Finding a summer free, he volunteered for Wayne Owens' first campaign for Congress. Owens won and asked Wilson to be his chief aide.

In 1975 Wilson successfully ran for mayor of Salt Lake City. In 1979 he organized a change-of-government vote, and when voters dumped the old commission form, Wilson was elected as sole executive. He ran an unsuccessful race against Sen. Orrin Hatch in 1982. In 1985 he resigned halfway through his third mayoral term to became director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the U.