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Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, experienced an evening this weekend that he never quite envisioned.

Garn - a graduate and avid fan of the University of Utah - was honored by an alumni group from rival Brigham Young University, and the conservative senator was hailed as "an American hero" by a liberal Democrat presenting the award."I don't know if it gets any better," Garn said as he received the Distinguished Service Award by the BYU Management Society of Washington.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who like Garn is a member of the LDS Church, presented the award for the BYU group honoring Garn's 18 years in the Senate, saying he is "an American hero" who "puts others before himself."

Reid said that although he rarely votes with Garn, he admires him because "no politician recognizes rhetoric and elitism faster than Jake Garn, and he slashes through it with ferocity."

He said Garn also "never acquiesces to the inside-the-beltway mentality" that Washington knows best. Reid said Garn has described Washington inside its beltway freeway "as 30 square miles surrounded by reality."

Reid also praised Garn's courage for fighting fiercely for Utah funding on the Senate Appropriations Committee; donating a kidney in dangerous surgery for a daughter; and riding the space shuttle.

Garn told the group the shuttle flight was the height of his Senate service - but led to frustration about why people can't live peacefully together and realize "we are astronauts traveling together on spaceship Earth."

He also told ambassadors of a dozen African and Eastern European countries who were guests at the dinner that he realized looking down from space, "that where people live free, they live well."

He also said that like he never found words to adequately express the beauty of space, "I have trouble finding the words to thank the people of Utah for all the opportunities they have given me."

Garn told the Deseret News he has no regrets about his decision to retire. "I feel better about it all the time. I don't know what I will do when I leave yet. Senator Jake Garn loves his work in the Senate, but Jake Garn husband and father can't wait to get out of here."