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Leader’s many visits to Utah left a deep imprint on residents

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Ronald Reagan speaks at the American Legion convention in Salt Lake City in September 1984.

Ronald Reagan speaks at the American Legion convention in Salt Lake City in September 1984.

Deseret Morning News Archives

Ronald Reagan came to Utah many times in his political career, leaving an imprint that will likely be felt forever, politicians and observers say.

"In my view, no person alive in the 20th century had a bigger impact on Utah politics than Ronald Reagan," said Ted Wilson, a Democrat who is a former mayor of Salt Lake City and former director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Former Rep. Jim Hansen agrees.

"I think he was one of the reasons that Utah politics is as conservative as it is," said Hansen, a GOP congressman who represented Utah for 22 years.

Reagan's views on a triumvirate of issues — abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment and fiscal responsibility — resonated with Utahns, helping conservatives here "congeal" their identity, Wilson said.

"His verbal politics combined those three issues. . . . They all crossed over together in 1980, those three issues, with a man on a white horse named Ronald Reagan who said he could deliver for the conservative community," Wilson said. "I think he really redefined Utah politics right then and there."

Politically speaking, up to that time, Utah was a more balanced state, said Wilson, who as mayor of Salt Lake City met Reagan once in Washington, D.C. Reagan's election as president galvanized Utah conservatives and others around the country.

"The Utah conservative we know today is very much patterned after that original Ronald Reagan concept," Wilson said. "I think Utah conservatives love Ronald Reagan. He is still their founding father."

Reagan's earliest Utah visit of note came in 1968, when as the then-governor of California he spoke at the state GOP convention. He made similar appearances in 1974, 1975 and 1976 and again in 1977, when the Western Republican Conference, a coalition of 14 Western states, met at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City.

By then Reagan had ended his terms as governor — he served from 1967 to 1975 — and had launched a campaign for the nation's highest office. Speaking to the Western governors Reagan "roused" the audience with an emotional speech pinpointing the "blunders" of the (Jimmy) Carter administration and blaming Democrats for "high taxes, inflation, unemployment, over-powering bureaucracy and a bankrupt foreign policy," according to a story in the Deseret News.

In 1980, Reagan made another campaign swing through the Beehive state, stopping again at the state Republican convention and dining with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As president of the United States, Reagan made stops in 1982 and 1984. In 1982, he arrived at Hill Air Force Base in Air Force One, Sen. Orrin Hatch in tow, and then attended a GOP volunteer picnic in Hooper, Weber County. There he commended the work of the LDS Church and called for the public to have faith in his programs and appealed for America to return to spiritual values and independence.

The 1984 trip was highlighted by a second visit with church leaders and a tour of Salt Lake City's Welfare Square. That trip also sparked a protest march of 150 along West Temple by five Utah peace groups opposed to U.S. involvement in Central America.

Finally, in 1991 after leaving the White House, Reagan returned for final visit to Utah, where he addressed a packed house at Brigham Young University.

Politics, however, wasn't the only thing that brought Reagan to Utah.

The one time actor is enshrined in Kanab's "Walk of Fame," a series of plaques on Main Street commemorating actors who were involved in productions in the area. He was the host of a 1960s television series, "Death Valley Days," filmed in the area.

Contributing: Alan Edwards; E-mail: jdobner@desnews.com