OREM — For years, the running joke between Orem City Manager Jim Reams and Orem Mayor Jerry Washburn was who could come up with the most elaborate birthday celebration. Once, on Washburn's birthday, Reams had the fire department bring a giant cake to the city council meeting.
"As they sang, the cake caught on fire," Washburn remembered Wednesday. "The flames were about 2 feet high, coming off the cake and Jim didn't know what to do. We all laughed and were glad we had the firemen there in full gear."
Reams' birthday is coming up Oct. 23, but instead of planning a celebration, the city is mourning his loss.
The 53-year-old visionary city manger, devoted husband and father, and honest friend died Tuesday night from a heart attack, just after leaving the city council meeting feeling ill.
"We're all in shock," city councilwoman Karen McCandless said Wednesday morning. "He was a dear, dear friend. There's a hole in my heart today."
McCandless has known Reams since she was appointed to the council in 2001 and said she relied frequently on his friendship and wisdom.
"You develop a bond with council members and your city manager because you've been through some pretty tough stuff together," she said, referring to numerous, confidential, closed-door meetings.
A towering man with a gravely voice, Reams worked hard to learn the names of the city's 400 employees, and took an interest in their lives and families, Washburn said.
Family was Reams' top priority, and he was the anchor to his wife, Susan, and their six children and two grandchildren, Washburn said.
Just last week, Reams told Washburn he had cooked dinner for his entire family: spareribs, corn on the cob — the works.
"He was just really thrilled about being able to do the whole thing," Washburn said. "He went shopping, bought all the food, (cooked it all), it's the first time he's done everything like that. He said he wanted to make that a tradition."
Reams loved being with his children at soccer games or Scouting activities and often took his grandchildren on "dates."
Reams was also active on numerous committees, including the UTOPIA board, where he was a vice chairman and a "key player" thanks to his institutional knowledge, said Kane Loader, UTOPIA chairman and Midvale's city manager.
"I don't know how you ever replace a man like Jim Reams," Loader said. "He was one of the city managers … all of us looked up to. He was the epitome of a city manager."
The Utah League of Cities and Towns and various United Way task forces are also feeling a loss with Reams' death.
"He's been a guy who you always look forward to working with," said United Way President and CEO Bill Hulterstrom. "No ego, great heart. The community has lost a phenomenal community leader and bridge builder."
Reams had been Orem's city manager since 1996. Prior to that, from 1985 to 1993, Reams was the assistant city manager and then the city manager in West Jordan.
"I can't remember when I didn't know him when I was in this business," said Byron Jorgenson, chief administrative officer in Sandy. "It is a big loss. A big loss of someone who has been so good, not only good at what he does, but so good with everyone."
Jorgenson described Reams as a quiet gentleman with unquestionable integrity and someone who never sought the limelight.
Much of Reams' work in Orem was done without fanfare, Washburn said.
Reams led the Lakeside Sports Park project, as well as the acquisition and development of the Mt. Timpanogos Park, home of the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival, Washburn said. He was also dedicated to Orem's library and the arts.
"Jim was a visionary man," Washburn said. "He was always looking at 'How can we make our community better now and for future generations.' He succeeded in a huge way in leaving a lasting legacy."
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