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Family photo
Ronda Rudd Menlove on the House floor with a few of her 10 grandchildren.

Ronda Rudd Menlove, the cowboy-boot-wearing educator and state legislator, tends to surprise people the first time they shake her hand. It’s not the dainty grasp of a gray-haired, 5-foot-6 grandma; it’s the grip of an ironworker, and invariably it gets a reaction.

Oh, wow!

Did you grow up on a farm?

Bingo. She grew up on a farm in West Fielding, which is north of Garland, which is near Tremonton, which is … never mind. Maybe the most relevant thing you could know about her formative years is this: Her father planted a field of sugar beets for no other reason than to give his children a chore.

“He wanted to teach his children to work,” says Menlove. “Everybody in the family worked.”

She’s been working ever since, and you could get tired just reading her vita. She has served 10 years in the Legislature and 26 years in public education, not counting the 10 years she took off to raise five children with her husband Martell (if you consider that time off). She’s done it all, from grade school to grad school — university professor, public school teacher, principal, assistant dean, vice provost. She’s taught high school dropouts, special ed, adult ed and home-bound. She’s taught in four different school districts — Granite, Tooele, Rich and Cache — and at Utah State University.

And for the last decade she has been the Republican state representative from District 1 while also holding down a job as senior vice-provost at USU.

Alas, she will not seek re-election this fall. “I’ve never seen myself as a career politician,” she says. “I believe in the citizen Legislature. I like that Utah has a part-time Legislature, so you have people from all walks of life who come to serve there. Sometimes when people are there for long periods of time, they see themselves more as politicians. I like movement in and out.”

Martell, the state superintendent of public schools, also recently announced his retirement, ending the era of the Menlove double-team in education. They will set up permanent residence on the old family farm in the house they built with their own hands a few years ago, with Ronda wielding a nail gun and a chop saw she bought for herself. Here they entertain family, shooting skeet off the back porch and playing on their snowmobiles, four-wheelers and boat.

For decades the Menloves have moved around Utah in their various assignments in public ed. They lived mostly in a small home in Salt Lake in recent years, driving back to Fielding one day during the week to fulfill church duties and again on weekends. This enabled Ronda to work in the Legislature and Martel to oversee the public school system.

Ronda Menlove made her work on the Hill a family affair at times, taking her grandchildren to the Capitol to play in her office while she worked and even accompanying her to the house floor (the grandkids once led the house in the Pledge of Allegiance, and her daughter Meagan offered the prayer). Her grandkids call the Capitol “Grandma’s castle.”

“They love that building,” says Menlove. “They have a special tie to it.”

Menlove never planned a political career. She was teaching special ed law at Utah State when one of her undergrads — who was active in local politics and noticed her frequent discussions of the Legislature — urged her to challenge a Republican incumbent no one wanted to take on because he had proved unbeatable. She resisted the entreaties, but eventually decided a run for office would be “a good academic exercise.” The night of the election, she refused an invitation to watch the returns at the county offices. “I wanted to lose at home,” she says. At about midnight she was informed that she had won.

“Oh, no,” she said to no one in particular. “What have I done?”

A self-described policy wonk, she discovered that she enjoyed learning of problems in the community and finding ways to address them with good policy. She ran many bills each session, but she names three causes that were among her favorites — aiding autistic children and their families, a job-training program for the disabled, and the nation’s first public education initiative to educate medical and daycare providers on prevention of cytomegalovirus (CMV). All three causes drew from her background in education. The latter cause hit close to home — she has a granddaughter who is deaf as a result of CMV.

“It became really personal,” she says.

Though her work has drawn her into the city, the former farm hand has never quite left her roots behind. She likes to wear her cowboy boots — red or black — to the Legislature and she credits the farm for her work ethic.

A shy youth, she depended on reading and the bookmobile for her entertainment, and she embraced the solace of the farm while changing siphon tubes in the wee hours and working in the fields.

“I loved being out in the middle of the night irrigating,” she says. “It was peaceful and beautiful. That, and the long hours in the hayfield gave me lots of time to think.”

She graduated magma cum laude from Utah State in 1973 with a degree in Spanish and a minor in history. Later she earned a master’s degree in secondary ed at Indiana University. A friend introduced her to Martell at church, after telling her privately that he wasn’t her type. They married and went to work as educators before deciding they needed more education. They used a tag-team routine to pursue Ph.D.s at Utah State. While she worked, he went to class and then they switched places. It took eight years to complete both degrees, and they lived three of those years in a single-wide trailer with five children on the USU campus.

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It can’t be surprising that four of the Menlove’s five children have careers in education — Megan, an assistant principal; Ross, an elementary school teacher; Sara and Rebecca (special ed teachers), although two of them have scaled back to be at home with their children (their other child, Taylor, is an attorney).

Now Menlove is also scaling back her work load, although she will continue as a senior vice provost at USU. As she tells it, when she grew up on the farm her grandmother lived next door and was her best friend.

“I want to feel like my grandkids have a great relationship with me,” she says.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com