While my family and I were wandering the streets of Killarney, Ireland, my oldest son, Luke, began chatting with an elderly Irish man. His first two questions for Luke were “Where are you from?” (“Utah”) and “Who is the most famous person born in Utah?” (“Good question”). In the spirit of Pioneer Day, below is my attempt to help all Utahns answer this question or at least stimulate a debate.
Before you can accurately consider this question, you need to sort out the people who are commonly known as being “from” Utah from those who were actually born here. Thus, we must disqualify some remarkable “Utahns” who were born elsewhere. LDS leaders Brigham Young and Ezra Taft Benson were born in Vermont and Idaho, respectively. Basketball stars John Stockton, Karl Malone and Andre Miller were born in Washington, Louisiana and California, respectively (although perhaps Malone’s stars linked him to the Beehive State from the beginning when he was born on Pioneer Day, 1963). Football stars Alex Smith and Ty Detmer began in Washington and Texas. And the list goes on: the University of Utah’s Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Mario Cappechi was born in Italy; businessman and philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr. comes from Idaho; Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull hails from West Virginia; and politicians Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman Jr. and Orrin Hatch were born in Michigan, California and Pennsylvania, respectively.
Having refined the list, I can now announce my top five most famous Utahns (with some honorable mentions) by looking at five categories: religion, innovators, sports and entertainment, business and others who are best described as simply “notorious.”
Religion: Gordon B. Hinckley, born in Salt Lake City in 1910, is perhaps best known for dedicating 95 temples during his tenure as 15th president of the LDS Church; Hinckley also brought the church into the global public sphere with his interviews on "60 Minutes" and "Larry King Live" and outreach efforts during the 2002 Winter Olympics. Also worth mentioning is LDS President David O. McKay, born in Huntsville in 1873, who declared “every member a missionary” and expanded the LDS Church’s proselyting efforts around the world.
Innovators: Anyone who has toured the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., has beheld the statue of Philo T. Farnsworth representing Utah alongside Brigham Young. Born in Beaver in 1906, Farnsworth is celebrated for inventing the first all-electric television and leading research in nuclear fusion. Honorable mentions in this category include John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe (Salt Lake City); J. Craig Venter, a scientist who helped decode the human genome (Salt Lake City); and John M. Browning, the “father of modern firearms” (Ogden).
Sports and entertainment: Competition in this category is a dead heat between NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, born in Salt Lake City in 1961, and brother-sister performing duo Donny and Marie Osmond, born in Ogden in 1957 and 1959. Utah is also birthplace to NBA stars Tom Chambers (Ogden), alpine ski racer Ted Ligety (Salt Lake City), actors James Wood (Vernal) and Roseanne Barr (Salt Lake City) and singer Jewel (Payson).
Business: World-renowned entrepreneur John Willard Marriott was born in 1900 in Marriott Settlement, Utah, near Ogden. His career began in 1927 when he opened a small A&W Root Beer stand in Washington, D.C., which later grew into the Hot Shoppe restaurant; he opened his first Marriott hotel in 1957, becoming an international leader in the hospitality industry. Also worth noting are highly effective author and businessman Stephen Covey (Salt Lake City) and banker and philanthropist Marriner S. Eccles (Logan), who helped design FDR’s New Deal.
Notorious: The infamous bank and train robber “Butch Cassidy” was born Robert Leroy Parker in Beaver, Utah, in 1866. Cassidy led the Wild Bunch gang of outlaws, which included the Sundance Kid, until they fled to South America around the turn of the century. Paul Newman immortalized Cassidy in the 1969 film classic playing alongside Utahn-by-heart Robert Redford, who was born in California but has brought prominence to the state through his Sundance Film Festival and resort.
Kirk L. Jowers is the University of Utah's director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics. He also is a partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Caplin & Drysdale.