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Bob Garff remembered as ‘calming influence’ for the 2002 Olympics

Chairman of car dealerships in five states died from COVID-19 complications

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Robert Garff, pictured in this undated handout photo, died Sunday, March 29, 2020, from complications due to the new coronavirus.

Ken Garff Automotive Group

SALT LAKE CITY — Robert Garff, the chairman of a car dealership conglomerate founded by his father and a former Utah House speaker who died Sunday from complications due to the new coronavirus, is being remembered for his leadership role in the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

Garff, 77, who served as chairman of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Olympics, was admitted to the hospital last week. He and his wife, Katharine, tested positive for COVID-19 and self-quarantined after becoming ill during a recent visit to Palm Springs, California.

Katharine Garff continues to recover at home. The Bountiful couple have five children and 21 grandchildren.

“With profound sadness, I have learned that my friend Bob Garff has passed away from COVID-19. It breaks my heart,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who was brought in to head the organizing committee by Garff and other Utah leaders amid an international bid-buying scandal that upended the Olympic world.

“The scandal that surrounded the Games could have overwhelmed our collective commitment, but Bob’s genuine goodness, clear-eyed optimism and can-do management experience helped to reignite our confidence and community spirit,” Romney said.

“The Games were arguably the best ever,” he said, “in large measure thanks to the character and care of Bob Garff.”

Romney said while Garff’s “contributions to our state, to our economy, and to our church will be heralded by many,” from him, “it was his sound and principled leadership as the chairman of the Olympic Winter Games of 2002 that is most compelling.”

Fraser Bullock, the chief operating officer of the 2002 Olympics and the president and CEO of the new committee seeking a future Winter Games for Utah, praised Garff’s “calming influence” as the organizing committee under Romney worked to get the event back on track.

“Right when we started we had a budget deficit and we had many people questioning how the organizing committee was going about its business,” Bullock recalled. But he said he always felt supported and “uplifted” by Garff.

“There was something about his gentle, kind nature that was an influence for good on all of us,” Bullock said. “In every single one of my interactions with him, you could feel his care for you, his concern for you, his kindness. He always had a smile. He was always calm and friendly, no matter what was going on.”

It was Garff who represented the organizing committee on the first leg of the international Olympic torch relay after the flame lit in Olympia, Greece, was carried across Greece over three weeks on its way to the Opening Ceremonies of the 2002 Games, Bullock said.

“That was such a special experience for Bob and Kathi, that they got to be on the home soil of the Olympic flame and journey with it all through Greece,” he said. “He did a wonderful job and I suspect that was one of highlights of his life. I saw many pictures, and in every picture he was smiling.”

Brett Hopkins, the CEO of Ken Garff Automotive, which has 51 automobile dealerships and a total of 4,500 employees in five states, including Utah, was hired by Garff after serving as the chief financial officer of the 2002 Olympics and has worked for him ever since.

“I always describe Bob as the nicest man you’ll ever meet. He was truly revered by all of his employees. He was our fearless leader but for the executive team, he was the source of all wisdom, the person who would steady our team. He always had our back, was always complimentary of our work, always appreciative,” Hopkins said.

“I can’t tell you how many times he told me — keep in mind I’m the employee and he’s the employer — thank you.”

Hopkins said the last time he saw Garff was before his Palm Springs trip. Garff sat in on a meeting “at the beginning stages of this virus. We were putting together our protocol,” Hopkins said, for social distancing and sanitizing the dealerships, which remain open.

“He was very active in that meeting, stressing the importance of personal hygiene and washing our hands,” Hopkins said, and “very vocal that we were doing everything possible in the early stages to keep our employees and our customers safe.”

Garff served as speaker of the Utah House of Representatives from 1985-87.

His daughter, Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, was elected to the House in 2018.

“My loving dad passed away peacefully today from COVID-19,” she posted on Facebook. “He has lived a long and happy life, full of vigor and love for our state and our families. I count myself blessed to be serving in the Utah House of Representatives just as my Dad did.”

U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, tweeted he is “deeply saddened by the loss of Bob Garff. I got to know Robert when I served as student body president at the University of Utah 20 years ago. I was inspired then with his commitment to our community and to public service, a legacy he continued all his life.”

McAdams, one of a handful of members of Congress who have tested positive for the new coronavirus, spent more than a week in the hospital before being released Saturday.  

Former Utah Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell, a Democrat, counted Garff as “one of the best friends I had in the political world. While we were not of the same party we always listened and Bob taught me how to create win-wins in the political world.”

Howell, who was elected to the Legislature after Garff served, said they got to know each other through the Olympics. Howell, a member of the organizing committee board, said Garff’s “demeanor and his genuine love of mankind was always reflected in the way that he worked with people. I always appreciated his advice and counsel.”

He said they had lunch a few months money ago and shared concerns about political leaders not working together, “caring more about themselves and less about their constituents. The vitriolic, mean-spirited not-working-together appalled both of us.”

Gov. Gary Herbert said in a tweet: “We lost a really great man. Bob Garff touched countless lives and gave so much service to our state, and its people. He was such a positive example to all of us. He leaves a hole in our heart and in the community.”

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who is running for governor, said in a statement: “Utah has lost not only a tremendous leader — but a community friend and someone who was always looking for ways to serve. When the final history of Utah is written, Bob Garff deserves his own chapter.”

Cox said he had breakfast a few weeks ago with Garff. “He was always so generous with his time and wisdom, yet humble with his own successes. But mostly he loved his incredible family,” the lieutenant governor said. He said Garff “leaves behind a legacy of integrity, hard work and service.”

Garff has served as chairman of the board for the Deseret Book Co. and as a board member for organizations such as Intermountain Health Care, the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Utah Commission on Volunteers and First Security Bank. He was a former chairman of the Salt Lake Chamber.

He founded the Keys to Success program to encourage Utah students to focus on education, and has supported his alma mater, the University of Utah, helping fund a new building for the David Eccles School of Business, and the upcoming Ken Garff Performance Zone at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Garff, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had numerous callings, including bishop, president of the England Coventry Mission, stake president for students at the University of Utah, Area Seventy and president of the Bountiful Utah Temple.