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Utahn of the Year: Gail Miller shows us how to be our better selves

(Rick Bowmer | AP Photo) Gail Miller, owner and chairwoman of the Utah Jazz, waks off the court after addressing the crowd before an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Thursday, March 14, 2019, in Salt Lake City. Miller warned fans to not engage in inappropriate language with players. There was a recent incident involving a fan and a player from the Oklahoma Thunder where the fan has since been banned from Vivint Smart Home Arena.

“This should never happen. We are not a racist community. We believe in treating people with courtesy and respect as human beings.”

— March 14, at the first Utah Jazz home game after a fan’s taunting of Russell Westbrook became a national discussion

Gail Miller knows where the buck stops.

The eyes of the basketball world were on Utah fans, and it would take no less than the owner of the team to set them straight. By all accounts, she did exactly that in a brief but forceful speech, leaving observers inside and outside the arena with no ambiguity about what she and her team would tolerate.

Said Jazz star Donovan Mitchell: “In this business, to have your owner to be so forward and so out there to back us the way she did, and to back Russell, that’s amazing.”

[Read more: Salt Lake Tribune readers pick award-winning STEM students as Utahns of the Year]

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"The important thing here today is not that a name is being put on a building. It’s what the building represents, and this building screams dignity. It means that those who are suffering can find a place to restore their dignity and reclaim their lives and become part of society in a meaningful way.”

— May 1, at the announcement of the Gail Miller Resource Center in Salt Lake City

Gail Miller knows where the bucks stop.

The area just south of Vivint Arena has been ground zero for the collapse of dignity. Homeless Utahns are caught in a downward cycle, falling victim to predators and addiction. Community leaders have opened their hearts and wallets to help build new homeless centers that are intended to repair people instead of just sheltering them. None has dug deeper than Miller.

“Gail and her family have given not only money but time,” Shelter the Homeless President Harris Simmons said of the decision to name the center after her. “They’ve given all their energy to try to help eliminate homelessness here in the Salt Lake Valley, and as a board we felt that we would be missing a great opportunity if we didn’t recognize these timeless efforts by someone that we all have really come to love throughout this community.”

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“But does anyone really believe we’re being forced to spend too much on schools? Certainly not the vast majority of Utahns. With all the issues our growing economy faces, this isn’t the time to talk about cutting the education fund.”

— Dec. 1, from a Salt Lake Tribune op-ed on legislative tax reform

Gail Miller is Utah’s conscience. Growing up poor on Capitol Hill and ending up the richest person in the state, she has lived every stage in between. She couldn’t always see what was ahead, but she always knew who she was. And for that, she demands respect when she tells us who we are.

Larry H. Miller died in 2009, leaving behind a business empire we knew well and a widow we barely knew. In the decade since, Gail Miller has made sure we all know who she is: plain-spoken and kind, but no nonsense.

She also has doubled the worth of Larry’s empire. So much more than a figurehead, Miller is a hands-on business leader who guides more than 10,000 employees across seven Western states as owner and chair of LHM group. She kept LHM on top of the automotive world, built up a major finance company and made sure the Jazz put down deep roots in Utah as the team climbed higher.

Miller is part of the undeniable rise of female leaders in Utah. In a state where women’s contributions have been undervalued, 2019 showed how the future will differ from the past.

Salt Lake City and County are both run by female mayors, and that will continue when City Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall joins County Mayor Jenny Wilson. Karen Huntsman expanded her family’s dedication to Utahns’ welfare with a $150 million gift to the University of Utah to change mental health care in the state. Four of Utah’s five largest public colleges are led by women who are transforming their campuses, and Murray and South Salt Lake City councils now have female majorities for the first time.

This year saw one woman in particular take front and center to mend the frays in Utah’s social fabric. Racism and poverty? We can be better, but we need to harness the power of education.

Gail Miller knows who she is, and so do we. She is The Salt Lake Tribune’s Utahn of the Year for 2019.

Editor’s note • Karen Huntsman is the mother of Salt Lake Tribune Publisher Paul Huntsman.

PREVIOUS UTAHNS OF THE YEAR

2018 • Former North Ogden Mayor and fallen soldier Brent Taylor.

2017 • Longtime U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch.

2016 • Madi Barney, who brought attention to how Brigham Young University was handling reports of sexual assaults.

2015 • Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes.

2014 • Same-sex marriage plaintiffs.

2013 • Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.

2012 • Mormons Building Bridges.

2011 • Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank.

2010 • Elizabeth, Lois and Mary Smart.

2009 • Elizabeth Smart.

2008 • Utah Jazz owner and businessman Larry Miller.

2007 • First responders to tragedies, including the Trolley Square shooting rampage and the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster.

2006 • Latino leaders Jorge Fierro, Andrew Valdez, Ruby Chacon and Alma Armendariz.

2005 • Pamela Atkinson, advocate for the poor and homeless.

2004 • Utahns killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

2003 • Gov. Olene Walker.

2002 • LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley.

2001 • Winter Games organizer Mitt Romney.

2000 • Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson.

1999 • The letter that sparked the Olympic bribery scandal.

1998 • Mary Ann Kingston, who suffered a brutal beating after escaping plural marriage.

1997 • NBA MVP Karl Malone.

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