SALT LAKE CITY — Joe Hansen, one of Jim Hansen's sons, recalled Wednesday his father's pride in Hill Air Force Base, and what he'd say whenever "a jet would go screaming overhead and break everyone's windows."
"He'd say, 'That's the sound of freedom,'" Joe Hansen recalled. "'You're lucky to hear and live under that every day.'"
Jim Hansen, Utah's longest-serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives, died Wednesday at the age of 86 from "complications from old age," his son confirmed.
Though his father hadn't been in the best of health over the past several years, the former congressman's death was "fairly sudden," considering he appeared to be doing well over the weekend, his son said. He passed away in a care facility.
As word of Hansen's death spread Wednesday, dignitaries across Utah government shared condolences to the Hansen family and remembered the congressman's legacy.
"With Congressman Jim Hansen's passing, Utah has lost a true statesman," Sen. Orrin Hatch posted on Twitter Wednesday.
"Whether it was in the Navy, in the state Legislature, or in the halls of Congress, Jim served with honor and distinction, always putting principle before party and others before self," Hatch said. "Utah would not be what it is today without Congressman Jim Hansen. I'm grateful to have known such a remarkable man and even more grateful to have called him a friend."
Hansen was born in Salt Lake City in 1932. In 1958, Hansen married Ann Burgoyne. They had five children. His family later grew to include 14 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Among the Republican congressman's proudest accomplishments, Joe Hansen said, was helping save Hill Air Force Base from closure, and fighting the "battle" with environmentalists over wilderness legislation. He said his father always "got a lot of criticism" from environmental groups, but his life's passion was the outdoors.
"I remember growing up, all the hunting and hiking and backpacking — all the things we did," Joe Hansen said.
Jim Hansen was first elected to the U.S. House in 1980, defeating five-term Rep. Gunn McKay, D-Utah. The election began a run of 22 years — 11 terms — in the House for the congressman.
He retired from Congress in 2003. Rep. Rob Bishop, who was just elected this month to his eighth and what he says will be his final term, replaced him.
Bishop expressed his condolences to Hansen's family in a prepared statement.
"He was a trailblazer," Bishop said. "Not just for Utah, but for me personally. … I will be forever grateful for the time he took to mentor me in each and every one of these roles. His impact on my life, and many others, cannot be overstated."
Bishop added: "Jim accomplished much without ever succumbing to arrogance. He was a good man, a fine leader, and a cherished friend. He will be missed."
Hansen retired from the U.S. House at 69, after achieving a pinnacle of power during his final term when he served as chairman of the full House Resources Committee. At the time, he was the only House member from Utah to ever chair a full committee.
When Hansen announced his retirement, Hatch said he and others had tried to persuade him to run at least one more time.
"We hate to see him retire because of how much he means to all of Utah," Hatch said at the time. "We have never had a better congressman in the 1st District."
Hansen gained attention in the spotlight through the years investigating scandals as a member of the ethics committee, being involved in the middle of the wilderness and public lands fights as a member of the resource committee, plus battling national defense issues as a member of the House armed services and intelligence committees.
Hansen told the Deseret News in a 2002 interview after his retirement announcement that he hoped to leave behind a legacy of hard work.
"I'm going out on a high," Hansen said at the time, "at the top of my game."
As a prominent member of the ethics committee, Select Committee Standards of Official Conduct, Hansen investigated former House Speaker Jim Wright, who resigned amid scandal.
He later became chairman of the ethics committee during a partisan crisis among its members over investigations into former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Both parties at the time said they trusted Hansen to handle any investigations fairly and impartially.
The day he announced his retirement, Hansen said he considered among his greatest achievements "saving the environment from the environmentalists." The congressman often sparred with them about Utah wilderness issues, although he sponsored the 1984 Utah Wilderness Act that created wilderness in U.S. Forest areas.
Hansen had also said among his favorite achievements were helping to protect Hill Air Force Base from closure; pushing a bill that lifted the old national speed limit of 55 miles per hour; and helping pass President George W. Bush's 2002 energy bill in the House — a bill many at the time doubted would pass.
Several years after his retirement, Hansen said in a 2006 interview it was difficult for him to leave the U.S. House.
"You go from moving 100 miles an hour down to 10, from running at full tilt to a slow walk. It's hard to get used to that," he said.
So instead of just fishing and spending time with family as he had planned to do with retirement, Hansen stayed involved by forming a lobbying firm on behalf of energy companies. Son Joe Hansen and a former top aide became his partners.
Hansen also wasn't done with politics, even after 42 years. He ran for governor in 2004 — a race that became the only political contest Hansen ever lost. Jon Huntsman Jr. went on to win, after Hansen lost at the GOP convention.
In 2003, the Legislature named a portion of U.S. 89 between Farmington and Ogden the James V. Hansen Highway in his honor. The federal building in Ogden was renamed the James V. Hansen Federal Building in 2004.
As word of his death spread Wednesday, local officials recalled his impact on the state and his influence in politics, crediting him with working across political divides.
"While Democrats did not always agree with the congressman’s positions, he was fair and respectful," Utah House Democrats said in a statement. "He recognized the importance of working across the aisle. He knew that achieving good legislation requires consensus and good relationships."
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, also issued a statement extending condolences to the Hansen family, crediting the congressman with getting involved in politics "to make a positive impact in his community."
"He was a tireless advocate and champion for Hill Air Force Base, multiple use of public lands, improving our transportation and water infrastructure and many other issues," Hughes said. "Utah and its citizens have greatly benefitted from his public service. He will be missed but certainly not forgotten."
Former Utah Senate President John Valentine credited Hansen with getting him into politics.
Valentine as a young attorney requested and got a meeting with Hansen, then the Utah House speaker, about an issue. Hansen later asked Valentine to be the Utah County coordinator for his first congressional campaign against McKay.
“We ran and a lot of people didn’t think we had any chance, and he won,” Valentine said.
Hansen, he said, then kept on him to run for office himself, which Valentine did in 1988.
“Jim and I had a long career together. Our lives just interwoved,” said Valentine, who now heads the Utah State Tax Commission.
Before his time in Congress, Hansen served in the U.S. Navy from 1952 to 1954, and was elected to the Farmington City Council in 1960, where he would serve for 12 years. His time on the council began his 42 years in public office.
In 1972, Hansen was elected to the Utah House of Representatives, where he would serve for eight years. From 1979 to 1980, Hansen served as speaker of the Utah House.4 comments on this story
Gov. Gary Herbert recalled Hansen's impact on Farmington and how Hansen "was drawn into public service for all the right reasons." The governor said Hansen's frustrations with the water system in Farmington and his drive to improve it kickstarted his decades-long public service career.
"His rule for getting involved in politics was 'get involved because you have a cause, not because you want a job,'" Herbert said in a statement. "He will be missed. We need more public servants like Jim Hansen."
Hansen graduated from East High School in the same class as future Sens. Jake Garn and Bob Bennett, R-Utah. The class also featured future apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Henry B. Eyring.
Contributing: Dennis Romboy