SALT LAKE CITY — And a warm welcome to 2018. But before we start breaking in the new year, here’s an "About Utah" look at the one that just ended.
Because it was the year of the impossible — when a man who never held public office became president and the Houston Astros — the Houston Astros! — won the World Series — the stories I remember most writing in 2017 were about things that shouldn’t have happened but somehow did anyway.
Leading the way were origin stories about two enormous charities born right here in Utah: the multifaceted Eccles Foundation(s) and the Children’s Miracle Network. Between these two nonprofits they have raised, and continue to raise, billions for worthy causes.
On paper, neither one should have happened.
David Eccles had every strike going against him when he and his family arrived in Utah from Scotland in 1863. There was a Civil War going on, times were difficult at best, and, at 14, he had every opportunity to play the role of sullen teenager.
Instead, he started cutting down trees — first to help out his blind woodworker father, then to provide material for a growing West in need of infrastructure. One enterprise led to another, and by the time of his death in 1912, David Eccles had become Utah’s first multimillionaire, amassing the substantial fortune that his progeny, in particular son George Stoddard Eccles, would set aside for philanthropy.
Led by the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, at least a dozen Eccles foundations have donated more than $1 billion to deserving Utah causes over the years, while continuing to lead the way each year in charitable giving.
The beginning of the Children’s Miracle Network was equally improbable. It can be dated back to the day a Salt Lake man named Mick Shannon, who originally planned to be a high school history teacher, dreamed up the idea of raising money for children’s hospitals around the country through TV and radio telethons and later through corporate partnerships.
By all rational calculations his idea had no chance, but with the help of people-person extraordinaire Joe Lake and good-hearted celebrities Marie Osmond, John Schneider and hundreds more just like them willing to contribute their fame and influence, Shannon created out of thin air a charity that to date has contributed over $7 billion to nearly 200 children’s hospitals nationwide — and by 2022 has a goal to contribute $1 billion every year.
Money, of course, isn’t the only way to measure unlikely success. In April I wrote about Christine Burckle, the first female general in the 122-year history of the Utah National Guard.
When Burckle was born in 1966, exactly zero female generals had served in the U.S. armed forces — ever. When she was commissioned into the United States Air Force in 1990, not only were women not allowed to fly bombers, they couldn’t even sit in the planes.
Undaunted, she persevered, working within the system rather than bucking against it, and as the worldview of women evolved she rode the waves of change all the way to the top.
A story I wrote about the Burns Cowboy Shop on Main Street in Park City detailed the 141-year history of a family business that began with a harness shop in central Utah in 1876; evolved in the 1950s to a business that made seat covers for pickup trucks; and, as cowboyin’ retreated further and further out of the mainstream, emerged at a ski resort selling Western gear to high-end customers willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for saddles, belt buckles and boots.
If Miles Burns were still around to see it, you could push him over with a hat feather.
And so the subject matter went for 2017. The improbable was the norm.Comment on this story
Unlikely? How’s this for unlikely? Hai Fitzgerald, a Vietnam native who, yearning for the fresh, healthy food of his youth in the Mekong delta, opens his Thyme & Seasons restaurant in a grocery store parking lot in Bountiful that never advertises and thrives entirely by word of mouth?
Or Michelle Kaufusi, who ignores 166 years of all-male history to become Provo’s first woman mayor?
Or Ben and Lorin Smaha, the Park City couple who import lobsters from New England for their Freshies restaurant and food truck? At a contest held in Maine in the summer of '17 their lobster rolls, made right here in the Utah mountains, are named best on Earth.
A few months after that, the Houston Astros won the World Series.