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Former Utah first lady Norma Matheson dies

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Former Utah first lady Norma Matheson meets with a group of friends at the home of Carol McFarland for their monthly book club on Thursday, April 20, 2017.

Former Utah first lady Norma Matheson meets with a group of friends at the home of Carol McFarland for their monthly book club on Thursday, April 20, 2017.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah first lady Norma Matheson died Sunday at the age of 89.

The wife of former Democratic Gov. Scott Matheson, Norma Matheson was the mother for four children, including former Democratic Congressman Jim Matheson and federal appeals court Judge Scott Matheson Jr.

"Our dear and amazing mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, Norma Matheson, passed away last night, having lived a life to be admired, celebrated and loved," according to statement Monday from her children. "She brought empathy, grace and common sense to everything she did. We owe everything to her."

Utah House Democrats called Norma Matheson a staunch advocate for good governance and civic participation and a beloved leader for Democrats in the state.

“I grew up across the street from Norma and have known her almost my entire life,” said Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City. “She was like my second mom. She always had time to chat and I could tell her absolutely anything. Norma was a woman of grace, warmth and great intelligence. She truly understood people."

Arent said she would never forget knocking on doors with Norma Matheson during her campaigns.

"People would run out of their homes to see Norma when they heard she was in their neighborhood," she said. "I loved Norma and will miss her very much.”

Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, said the state has lost an "extraordinary" public servant.

McAdams said he first met Norma Matheson as a college student when she interviewed him as a candidate for the Matheson Leadership Scholarship, which honors the late governor's leadership legacy.

"Receiving it gave me the opportunity to pursue politics and public policy and to endeavor to follow in their very large footsteps. Norma was beloved by everyone she met for her warmth, humor and commitment to giving back to the community. The world is a better place because of her," he said.

Born in 1929 to Dr. Leo and Ardella Warenski, Norma Matheson grew up in Nephi. The family moved to San Francisco and Philadelphia for her father’s ob/gyn training in her teen years. The family settled in Salt Lake City, where Norma attended East High School.

Norma Matheson graduated from the University of Utah with a bachelor’s degree in zoology. She married Scott Matheson in 1951.

"They dedicated their lives to their children — loving, teaching and supporting them in every way possible, and imparting strong values to guide them through life," the family statement said.

The Matheson children, including son Tom and daughter Lu, said community service was a core value for their parents.

During her tenure as first lady from 1977 to 1985, she worked tirelessly on issues affecting the elderly, education and children. She visited every senior center in the state and led the restoration of the historic governor’s mansion.

"Our parents shared a storybook romance and marriage, partners in parenting and public service. When she lost our dad much too soon, she rededicated herself to community engagement and friendships," the statement said.

Scott Matheson died in 1990 of a multiple myeloma, a rare form of cancer, at age 61.

Gov. Gary Herbert called Norma Matheson the "perfect teammate" for her husband.

"Energetic and intelligent, she led causes that changed Utah’s future for the better. She raised a family that is dedicated to public service. I’m so grateful to have known Norma. She was a tremendous mother, advocate and person," he said.

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant said he first got to know Norma Matheson when she campaigned for Jim Matheson in his first race for Congress. He said her love for her family and willingness to sacrifice for the state impressed him.

"She had a remarkable quality to make everyone around her feel important and heard," he said. "These very attributes translated into her many efforts to improve the quality of life for all Utahns."

Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson called her a gracious first lady who served with a heartfelt commitment to the community, her husband and her family.

"In recent years, she continued to impact the community through her dedication to land preservation, women’s advancement and many other notable causes," she said. "Norma was an inspiration to me and will be missed.”

Norma Matheson served on many boards, including The Nature Conservancy of Utah, Scott M. Matheson Leadership Forum, University of Utah College of Nursing Development, Utah's Hogle Zoo, Governor’s Commission on Aging, Utah State University Utah Botanical Center, Alliance for Unity, Salt Lake League of Women Voters and Utah Women’s Legislative Council.

“Whenever I wanted to hear a common-sense, down-to-earth perspective on an issue that I knew was shared by regular Utahns, I knew Norma was the person to talk to. She reflected the values of Utahns," said Utah House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City.

Former GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt said Norma Matheson was a "stalwart Utahn" who made a positive difference in people's lives all over the state. He said he and his wife, Jackie, worked closely with her on preservation of the governor's mansion and more recently on the Count My Vote initiative, a bipartisan effort to increase voter participation.

"We celebrate her life and contributions while offering our condolences to the Matheson family. Norma Matheson was a great Utahn," Leavitt said.

Norma Matheson leaves behind her brother Jim, four children, nine grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Arrangements for a memorial event are pending.