Cal Rampton: Former three-term governor dies at 93
Calvin L. Rampton lost six elections in a row and seemed to be Utah's consummate political loser before he was elected governor in 1964, served three terms and earned a place in history as one of the state's most significant figures.
He died Sunday night of cancer in a Holladay hospice. He was 93.
"He passed away peacefully surrounded by his family," said his son, Tony Rampton. "He was lucid and conversational until nearly the very end. He had a great life."
Rampton visited with family members throughout the day Sunday, his son said. He slipped into unconsciousness about an hour before he died.
Former First Lady Norma Matheson, whose late husband Scott was Rampton's hand-picked successor, said she and her son Scott Jr. visited Rampton on Friday "and we had a great time. We talked for about a half-hour, mostly about politics of course. He kept up with everything that was happening politically."
Rampton modernized state government, invented Utah's economic and tourism development model and renovated and expanded college and university campuses in preparation for the onslaught of baby-boomer students.
He is remembered not only for his accomplishments as a government leader, but for a steadfast integrity and honesty viewed by many as uncommon in today's political environment. And he is known for the endearing partnership he had with his wife, Lucybeth, whom he honored both in his speeches and writings as a guiding force in his life.
"Cal Rampton brought an intelligence and integrity to the political landscape that everyone respected," said Pat Shea, former chairman of the Utah Democrat Party and a one-time gubernatorial candidate.
"When he spoke, everyone knew that he had thought long and hard about what he was going to say. He never said something just to get headlines," Shea said. "And when he made a decision, there was no question that he believed it was the best decision for the state, not for political expediency or a vested economic interest."
Elected in 1964, Rampton broke a 16-year Republican grip on Utah's statehouse and secured a Democratic stronghold that would last through his 12 years in office and another eight years under his successor Scott Matheson, whom Rampton mentored and helped get elected in 1976.
"Calvin L. Rampton was by any measurement Utah's most accomplished governor, said his longtime friend and former Salt Lake Tribune publisher Jack Gallivan. "His personality, vision, and leadership brought about bi-partisan government to dramatically advance the social, cultural and economic welfare of the state. Utah has lost it's favorite son."
Rampton said in a recent interview that he became a Democrat "at the knee of my maternal grandfather, who would hold me on his lap and tell me the virtues of low tariffs over high tariffs. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I knew I loved it."
His attraction to the party that would eventually honor him as its greatest leader was enhanced by the influence of his Davis High School debate teacher, Frank Muir, who taught him to speak directly to his audience by flinging pieces of chalk at his forehead every time he looked away.
"Although my maternal grandfather already had me steered toward being a Democrat, if there was any doubt about it, Frank Muir put the finishing touches on it," Rampton wrote in his 1989 memoir, As I Recall.
After he was elected as the part-time Davis County attorney in 1938, Rampton lost bids for the state Senate in 1940, 1948 and 1952, as well as bids for state Democratic party chairman and Democratic national committeeman during the 1950s. He tried for the U.S. Senate in 1962 and lost in the Democratic primary.
But he never could stay far from the political fray. His political activity began when he was in his 20s as an aide to Rep. Will Robinson, D-Utah, in Washington, D.C., where he met Lucybeth Cardon, a legal secretary.
They married in 1940 after he earned his law degree at the University of Utah even as he served as Davis County attorney and ran Robinson's Utah field office.
Rampton's law and political career, as well as his family life, were interrupted when the United States entered World War II and Rampton was activated by the Army as a second lieutenant. He worked mostly for the Judge Advocates Office, but eventually went to France, the scene of this memorable story:
"There was a small airfield near Beauvais, and as the Battle of the Bulge was winding down after Christmas the Germans . . . dropped a great number of parachutists around the area. Therefore, we all had to answer with passwords at the various checkpoints. An army sentry stopped me at a checkpoint and asked me for the password, but I couldn't remember it. He brought his gun up and said, 'What's Blondie's husband's name.' I told him I couldn't remember his name, but that he eats those big sandwiches. The sentry laughed and let me pass."
In France he also ran into his childhood friend Max Rich, who later would be one of his most trusted advisers when he was governor. Rich was leading a battalion toward the Battle of the Bulge, but took time to visit Rampton's quarters "where we drank champagne and sang old Davis High School songs."
After the war, Rampton worked as an assistant Utah attorney general and in a private law firm with two other attorneys. His family grew to six, with four children born between 1941 and 1952, and he remained active in state and national Democratic politics.
During his run for the governorship, Rampton had the help of a group of advisers his wife dubbed "the back-yard mafia," who'd sit around his swimming pool and devise strategies. After a particular vicious attack against Rampton in fliers distributed by an anonymous group a week before the 1964 election, some of his advisors wanted to respond in kind.
Rampton considered it, but said his son Tony "was aghast that I would even think of such a thing."
In the end, his campaign did not go negative. "And I'm glad we didn't do it," he wrote.
The "back-yard mafia," consisting mostly of fellow attorneys active in the Democratic party, stuck with him after he was elected. They gathered a group of about 30 "bright young Democrats" who met with Rampton every evening to build an agenda. He credited that group for his ability to get most of what he wanted through his first Legislature, which was predominantly Democratic, in 1965.
After his three terms, Rampton resumed his private law practice where he worked mostly in corporate law. He continued to work at the law firm of Jones, Waldo, Holbrook and McDonough - except for Fridays, his golf day - well into his 80s.
He also continued to hold court as a valued political mentor for a new generation of Democrats. Even in his late 80s, he was the keynote speaker at a Democratic state convention, where he referred to Utah's all-Republican U.S. House delegation as "the three stooges."
The closest thing to a scandal in Rampton's administration involved allegations that the Utah Liquor Commission improperly used its inventories of alcohol for personal use. One commissioner was indicted, but was acquitted at trial.
"When a reporter confronted Rampton at his monthly televised news conference, stating, "Isn't it true you improperly served alcohol at the Governor's Mansion?" Rampton replied: "Yep. It won't happen again."
"Rampton proved that even if there is a potential scandal, there is a window of escape if you are honest," Shea said. "You see politicians today, even when they are innocent, go through these lawyer-like contortions to get out of something that looks embarrassing. They've lost the Rampton rotor of integrity."
Rampton's blunt honesty and the compassion he and his wife Lucybeth exhibited endeared him most to his acquaintances and constituents both during and after his tenure in office.
Matheson used to tell this story: Jimmy Carter, who had been the governor of Georgia, was running for president. Asked what he thought of Carter, Rampton replied that he was one of the five worst governors he had served with.
The quote went on the national news wire and Carter heard about it. He called Rampton and said: "Cal, did you really say that about me?"
After a pause, Rampton said, "Yes, Jimmy, I did. But I didn't know reporters were there."