It was 1972, I was a 20 year old college student at the University of Utah, not far from my high school experience at Murray High, and not to far into any kind of career except having fun and trying to get through school. It was a year that changed my life in many ways, including galvanizing my feelings about politics and issues for the rest of my life.
In office was Richard Nixon, a man I despised, and running against him was George McGovern, a well know liberal, who was not only too liberal to win as a president, but in retrospect was probably too mild of a person to be in that job too. None-the-less, I was a campaign worker for him. That was also the year I met and decided to work for Wayne Owens.
As with many people my age at the time, we found the status quo to be a mess. The Vietnam War had proven to be a quagmire which caused many of us to wonder if the government ever told us the truth about anything, ever. Between the deceit of LBJ and the crookedness of Nixon, I and many others were fed up with the way things were. We were out to change the political world as this country had known it.
Owens felt the same way. At 34 years old, he reminded me, and many others of the young Jack Kennedy I had seen elected as an eight year old child. However, as far as I was concerned he was better than Kennedy, in that not only did he have enthusiasm and the leadership ability the royal family of Massachusetts's had, he could also be trusted. While running for office he ran all over the state meeting people and promising that if he won he would hold regular town meetings to get people's feelings on important issues. I had seen him on television, but when he came to campus and spoke one evening in the Union Ballroom it made my mind up. Sherm Lloyd, part of the old Utah culture needed to be gone. I signed up to work on his campaign, expecting to split time between he and McGovern. But soon I found myself doing a lot more for Owens than for McGovern. I knew, deep in my heart, Nixon's "silent majority" would vote him in once again, and that beating my head against the wall for a liberal from the upper midwest in Utah was probably have about as much effect on that national election as me throwing a rock in the Pacific Ocean and expecting people in Hawaii to see the wake.
So I spent that spring and part of the summer working on Wayne Owens campaign. During the campaign I actually got to meet him a couple of times and he seemed so real, so sincere.
But when I really became impressed was after he was elected. I went to a number of "town meetings" he held in various parts of his district to ask questions and see how people reacted to his style of politics. While most politicians wait for the letters and phone calls about issues to come pouring in, he went out and looked for what the people thought. He was open to new ideas and I found that he often changed his mind when people made valid points about issues, even though his decidedly liberal stance would seem to support a different point of view.
Since 1974, I had never seen him again up close. I saw him on television a number of times, and of course voted for him when he ran and won for congress again in the late 1980's. I also watched as he was defeated in his bid for governor. I really did not know much of what he had been doing since then.
So I have to ask why, since I heard of his death early last week, I have felt such a loss. It's not that I was a close friend of anything.
It think it is for two reasons. First, Owens was a real person, not like so many of the politicians of today who seem to only owe allegiance to big companies and big money. His humble beginnings as one of nine kids from Panguitch made him that way. I still think he would have made a great governor, kind of a second Cal Rampton, but I guess we will never know now.
Second, when he died I lost part of youth. Teenagers and young people in the late 60's and early 70's needed someone they could grab onto and trust in politics. It seemed we had few to turn to. LBJ had discounted himself as a liar and a cheat, Nixon said he was not a crook, but he was. The only Kennedy left seemed to always have poor judgment about almost everything he did. I know I had become cynical and untrusting. Owens brought back some of that trust for me, and later Scott Matheson reinforced that trust more.
Now they are both gone and it is a sad thing for the state of Utah.