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SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt tells people that growing up in Cedar City was like a combination of "Bonanza" and "Leave It to Beaver."
Mitt Romney says that makes Leavitt "the Beaver."
"The Beaver, he was something special," Romney told a laughing crowd at the Grand America Hotel. "Mike Leavitt, he's something special, too — respectful and obedient, wise and insightful, plain-spoken, a friend when one is needed, adventurous, and the No. 1 volunteer when help is needed."
Leavitt was named the 2014 recipient of the Salt Lake Chamber's Giant in Our City Award at an event in his honor Thursday night.
Romney, former Massachusetts governor and 2012 Republican presidential nominee, received the award in 2002. He shared personal and entertaining anecdotes about Leavitt as he introduced him, leaving his sidekick from planning the 2002 Winter Olympics laughing openly.
"Sometimes Mike's volunteering, willing spirit can be used against him," Romney said, recounting a prank Leavitt's brothers played on him, calling and reporting they had been jailed in Tijuana.
Leavitt responded by launching an unsolicited campaign for county attorney for one brother and planting a suspiciously labeled baggie of powdered sugar on another's private plane, Romney explained.
Romney praised Leavitt for his part in lifting Utah to be named the best-run state in the nation six of the 11 years he served as governor, transforming educational offerings through charter schools and math and science engineering schools, and founding Western Governors University.
The former Utah governor joked about how impressive the title of "Giant in Our City" would look on a business card, and he noted seriously that his greatest accomplishment can be seen in the quality of friendships he has made serving Utah.
We're not just honoring him for being governor, we're honoring him for all the things he's accomplished and the impacts to Utah business and our communities. Without question, he just continues to give.
As he accepted the award, Leavitt turned the focus to his family, regaling the crowd with humorous tales of raising five children in the Governor's Mansion and asking his family to stand and be recognized.
Looking to the state's future, Leavitt told reporters he believes Utah's "great opportunity and great challenge" is to become continually more culturally diverse.
"One of our major challenges in the future as a state is integrating that new demographic," he said. "If you want to see what the state will look like 20 years from now, go to a third-grade class and see the wide array of people from different countries who speak different languages. Our challenge is to ensure we take advantage of that as a strength and not allow that to divide our state."
Leavitt is one of only two Utah governors to be elected three times, serving Utah from 1993 to 2003 as the state upgraded public transportation and hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Leavitt was appointed administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency the same year he left the governor's office, which Romney dubbed "a plum assignment for a conservative Republican who wants to end his political career. In 2005, Leavitt was chosen by President George W. Bush as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
After serving in Washington, D.C., Leavitt and his family returned to Utah, where he established a health care intelligence firm, Leavitt Partners.
"He's moved his businesses back here. Everything is here. His home is here. His children are here," said Lane Beattie, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber. "It's about time we as a state said, 'Thank you.'"
Leavitt's continued contributions to Utah distinguish him, Beattie said.
"We're not just honoring him for being governor," he said. "We're honoring him for all the things he's accomplished and the impacts to Utah business and our communities. Without question, he just continues to give."
Since 1970, the Giant in Our City Award honors public service and professional achievement, and its long list of past recipients include Larry H. Miller in 2007 and Kem Gardner, chairman of KC Gardner real estate company, in 2012.
Last year's award was shared by two Salt Lake City natives, Harris Simmons, president and CEO of Zions Bancorp., and Scott Anderson, president and CEO of Zions First National Bank. Contributing: Andrew Adams