Lee Benson, Deseret News
Former Southern Utah University President Gerald R. Sherratt has left a lasting imprint on Cedar City.

CEDAR CITY — Proof positive that nothing lasts forever and that time flies when you're having a good time is sitting in front of me at The Depot Grill on Main.

Gerald R. Sherratt turned 81 this week — on Election Day, to be exact. He's no longer president of Southern Utah University. He's no longer mayor of Cedar City. He isn't even a full-time resident anymore. He splits his time these days between his home here and another one in Las Vegas, especially during winter snowstorms.

But his presence, that never takes a break. Go ahead. Just try and find a corner of Cedar City that doesn't have his mark on it. The airport terminal? His. The city aquatic center? His. The Helen Foster Snow statue at City Park? His. The Utah Summer Games, the Livestock and Heritage Festival, SkyFest, the Christmas Parade? His, his, his and his.

At the college, there are the 16 buildings that went up under his tenure. There are the trees he planted and the statues he ordered. There's the university status he secured and the NCAA Division I athletic program he got started. The Gerald R. Sherratt Library isn't his, but it's named after him.

That's not all, or even close to all, but you get the point. Some people leave their fingerprints on their city; Gerald Sherratt has left fingerprints, handprints, footprints and toeholds.

Trying to explain why he's given so much to Cedar City, and Cedar City has given so much to him, he sizes up their relationship in five words:

"These roots, they grab hold," he says as he ties into one of The Depot Grill's signature steaks.

And when the roots go as deep as Sherratt's, they really grab hold. One side of his genealogy traces back to the Bullocks, who were on the first wagon train of homesteaders sent south by Brigham Young in 1851 to settle what became known as Cedar City.

The other side of his genealogy, the Sherratts, came three years later.

In the winter of 1897-98, his great-grandfather Sherratt was one of the men who kept the road open between the town and the sawmill located some 20 snow-drifted miles distant in the tops of the mountains.

The lumber from that mill was needed to construct the building that turned Cedar City into a college town.

The entire city made certain that "Old Main" was finished by the September 1898 deadline that had been mandated by the state Legislature in Salt Lake City. If Cedar City was tardy, the legislators said they would award the college charter to someplace else in Southern Utah.

"Everybody pulled together and made that happen," says Sherratt. "It's a marvelous part of our history."

In 1949, Sherratt graduated from his hometown's college when it was known as Branch Agricultural College and offered a two-year degree. He moved on to Utah State for his four-year degree and a master's, followed by a PhD at Michigan State.

He returned to Utah State for a 24-year tenure as an administrator before what was by then known as Southern Utah State College asked him to come back to Cedar City and take over as the school's president.

In his 16 years at the helm he built a building a year, more than tripled the size of the student body (from 1,800 to 6,000), elevated the athletic program to the Division I level and successfully lobbied the Legislature for university status in 1991, thereby transforming SUSC into SUU – Southern Utah University.

But it was his first project he's most proud of. The day he arrived, in January 1982, he started a campaign to build The Centrum, a combination special events center/basketball arena.

With the iron mines closed and the local economy hurting, people gave it less chance of happening than Old Main.

But President Sherratt invoked that spirit of '98, all of Cedar City pulled together and three years later the $1.5 million center was completed.

"Everything came after that," smiles Sherratt. "Everything."

Three years after he stepped down as SUU president, he was elected mayor of Cedar City at the age of 70. He served two terms, launching project after project and festival after festival. It was Sherratt who trademarked "Festival City USA" as an official Cedar City alias.

His last term ended three years ago.

And now?

"Now I'm doing one-third as many projects as I used to, but it takes three times as long," he says.

At the moment he's knee-deep helping organize the Storybook Cavalcade Parade that will take place Dec. 6 on Cedar City's Main Street. The parade is part of the American Children's Festival, an annual event first started by you know who.

"He's one of those rare gentlemen – a real visionary and a very, very hard worker," says Michael Benson, the current SUU president. "We're all beneficiaries of Jerry's vision and courage and lifelong devotion to his hometown."

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.

email: lbenson@desnews.com