Bob Bernick’s notebook: Remembering Norma Matheson

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Many fine testimonials this past week for former Utah First Lady Norma Matheson upon her passing last Sunday.

She truly was a remarkable woman, wife, mother and social and political activist.

She died at age 89, keeping quiet about her diagnosed leukemia – also much like her.

Deseret News reporter Dennis Romboy did a thorough job of listing all her accomplishments in this obituary, so I won’t attempt that here.

I’d like to recall how Mrs. Matheson worked so well with her late husband, Gov. Scott M. Matheson, during their remarkable marriage and political partnership.

It’s often not easy to be the spouse of a politician, even in a time where in Utah officeholders didn’t get slammed as partisanly as they do today.

I covered Gov. Matheson and Mrs. Matheson for several years in the early 1980s as one of two Capitol Hill reporters for the Deseret News, and then as the paper’s political editor until the governor’s unfortunate death in 1990 from a rare form of cancer, perhaps caused by open-air nuclear bomb testing in southern Nevada when he and Norma were in Cedar City where he was working as a new attorney.

And the governor was not always happy with how the Deseret News covered him. That is to be expected, I suppose. But it is not easy.

Gov. Matheson was a moderate, pragmatic Democrat in office as Utah turned dramatically in the 1970s from being a bipartisan state to a strong, even right-wing, Republican state.

He got very high job approval ratings in the early days of Deseret News polling by Dan Jones & Associates. But he won a close 1980 re-election contest against a relatively unknown Republican challenger. And Utah has not seen a Democratic governor since.

In Matheson’s second term, January 1981 to January-1985, he got into some real scrapes with the GOP-controlled Utah Legislature.

And Mrs. Matheson was there by his side the whole time.

I remember at the end of one legislative session when Gov. Matheson nominated his sister-in-law, Marilyn Warenski, author of the then-popular book Patriarchs and Politics, a history of Mormon women, to a position on what was then the state school book board.

Warenski was the wife of Mrs. Matheson’s beloved brother, Dr. James Warenski, an obstetrician. (The couples lived close to one another just west of the Hogle Zoo, when the good doctor would honk his horn as he drove past the Matheson’s house in the early morning hours on his way to deliver a baby.)

Some GOP senators disliked the book and wanted Gov. Matheson to rescind the nomination, saying Marilyn Warenski would be embarrassed when they voted her confirmation down.

But like they always did, the Mathesons stood firm together with their family. The Republicans did vote down Warenski nomination and looked all the worse publicly for it.

I only saw the governor choke up twice in many years, once when in early 1984 he announced at the University of Utah that he wasn’t going to run again. With Norma sitting beside him, he talked about how much she meant to him. “There, I got past that,” he joked, with many in the audience in tears.

Norma and Scott Matheson were a wonderful partnership, all the way.

They raised four remarkable children – now added by wonderful grand- and great-grandchildren.

Mrs. Matheson was the strong matriarch for nearly 30 years after the governor’s passing – a long, at times hard, absence. Not only for her family, but for the Utah Democratic Party, women’s issues, advocating for public and higher education, and on and on.

Mrs. Matheson was a mentor and supporter for many women, young and old, as they struggled in male-dominated Utah on multiple fronts.

She leaves behind a strong legacy in her own right. But it was with Scott that she felt most complete, and he with her.

As he lay near death, I’m told Gov. Matheson said to his family, gathered around him: I sure will miss you guys.

It’s nice to believe that Norma and Scott Matheson are together again, as they were always meant to be.