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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's 13th governor, Norman Howard Bangerter, a man who saw himself as "just an old farmer and carpenter" from Granger who wound up leading the state, died Tuesday at age 82 after suffering a stroke, a family member said.
The down-to-earth Bangerter was Utah’s first Republican governor in two decades, serving from 1985-1993. He is remembered for raising taxes to protect schools in a declining economy, and for building $60 million pumps in the West Desert to deal with flooding from the Great Salt Lake.
Those tough decisions, along with slashing state spending, resulted in Bangerter’s popularity with voters plummeting after his 1984 victory over Wayne Owens. But he still narrowly defeated Democratic challenger Ted Wilson and independent candidate Merrill Cook in 1988 to win a second term.
"We went through some really bad economic times and he handled them courageously," said Bangerter's former lieutenant governor, Val Oveson. "He stuck with his convictions."
Utah Commissioner of Higher Education Dave Buhler, who served in Bangerter's administration and managed his 1988 re-election campaign, said the governor knew what the fallout would be from pushing through the tax increase but did it anyway.
"He said, 'I just signed my political death warrant,'" Buhler recalled. "He had no illusions of the political consequences. He knew that they would be negative. He was there to make a decision."
Bangerter saw his role as governor "as a stewardship for the state," Buhler said. "He did not worry about how he would be remembered. He was not somebody who liked spin or fluff."
Steve Mecham, a former chief of staff to Bangerter, said even though the governor's decision to build the pumps came at a time when I-80 was threatened by the rising lake, it was also an unpopular move.
"Had he not put them in, there would have been terrible criticism for that. He did what he had to do," Mecham, now a lobbyist, said of the pumps, used only for a few years. "I admired his courage."
Utah Department of Commerce Executive Director Francine Giani, whose first state government job was as Bangerter's press secretary, said with him, "what you saw was what you got. I appreciated that. That's kind of how I am."
Giani said she learned the importance of making the right decisions from Bangerter, who would sometimes come into her office, sit at her desk and close the door so they could play Nerf basketball and talk.
"He would shoot hoops. I rebounded for him," Giani said, recalling tearfully that when she was being sworn in as a member of the Centerville City Council, Bangerter showed up at the ceremony unannounced. "That's the kind of guy he was."
Heather Barney, who also served as Bangerter's press secretary and went on to work for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he kept in touch with his former staffers and particularly liked to discuss the country's need for strong leadership.
"Just three weeks ago, I talked to him about that," Barney said. "I don't think people understood what a strong leader he really was. … He was all about doing what was right and not people fawning all over him."
I want to go down in history as the governor who didn't spend eight years worrying about how he would go down in history.
–Norman Howard Bangerter, former Utah Gov.
In a 1986 television address, Bangerter told Utahns the state's "future depends on making not just easy decisions, but the right decisions.” A slogan of his administration was “building a better Utah," a call for hard work, fiscal responsibility and integrity.
“The purpose of a leader, then, especially in Utah, is to tap that intangible spirit to help create those conditions in which people can improve the quality of their lives and their capacity to dream even greater dreams,” the then-governor said in his farewell address on Dec. 15, 1992.
Bangerter kept his name listed in the phone book throughout a political career that included 10 years in the Utah Legislature, the last four as speaker of the House. He was not one to worry about popularity or polls.
“I want to go down in history as the governor who didn’t spend eight years worrying about how he would go down in history,” Bangerter said when he announced he would not seek a third term, telling Utahns he had made the best decisions possible, regardless of the political consequences.
Bangerter was born Jan. 4, 1933, in Granger, now West Valley City, to William Henry Bangerter, a building contractor and farmer, and Isabelle Bawden Bangerter, the 10th of 11 children. As a teenager, he worked as a carpenter with his father and older brother.
A 1951 graduate of Cyprus High School, Bangerter served with the U.S. Army in the Korean War from 1953-54. As a young husband and father, he attended BYU and the University of Utah but quit school when he was called as a bishop for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He spent as many years in service to his church as he did as a legislator and governor, including three years as president of the South Africa Johannesburg Mission for the LDS Church, with his wife, Colleen, who died in July 2011, six years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Bangerter married Colleen Monson, of Magna, on Aug. 18, 1953, in the Salt Lake LDS Temple. The couple had six children and also raised a foster son. In 2012, he married Colleen’s longtime friend, caretaker and assistant, Judy Schiffman. Their combined families number more than 100, including many grandchildren.
Bangerter worked 25 years in real estate and business, and founded NHB Construction, known for homebuilding and residential real estate development. He had also been a partner in Bangerter & Hendrickson Enterprises and had been secretary for Dixie-Six Land Development.
The West Valley Chamber of Commerce had honored him as its “outstanding businessman,” and Utah’s homebuilding industry had also cited his distinguished service.
His many other honors included being named one of the top 10 National Republican Legislators in 1983. A 1991 Newsweek poll of U.S. governors listed him as the eighth most effective, as chosen by his peers. He also received honorary doctorate degrees from Utah State University, the University of Utah and Dixie College.
And the well-traveled Bangerter Highway, once known as the West Valley Highway, was later named for the former governor.
In a statement, Bangerter's family expressed their thanks to Utahns "for their love and support" of him throughout the years and said information about funeral services will be announced at a later time.
Contributing: Sam Penrod