Bob Garff, auto exec and former Utah House speaker, dies of the coronavirus

(Courtesy photo) Robert Garff, chairman of the Ken Garff Automotive Group and a former Utah House speaker, died of the coronavirus on Sunday, March 29, 2020.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here. To support journalism like this, please consider donating or become a subscriber.

Robert H. Garff, an outspoken political and business leader in Utah for decades and among its most charitable philanthropists, died of the coronavirus on Sunday. He was 77.

Bob Garff, as he was known, became one of at least four Utahns so far to succumb to the disease and the first high-profile Utahn. His death was confirmed by his daughter, Melissa Ballard, who represents North Salt Lake as a Republican in the Utah House of Representatives. Her father served as speaker of that body from 1985 to 1987 and was a key organizer of the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Garff was also the longtime chairman of the Ken Garff Automotive Group, named for his father who started the company in 1932. It remains one of the biggest sellers of cars in Utah, selling everything from Chevrolets to Ferraris. There are also Garff dealerships in Michigan, Iowa, Texas, Nevada and California.

“My dad lived an amazing life,” Ballard told The Salt Lake Tribune on Sunday, pointing to him as her inspiration for getting into politics. “He is a giant in our city. And he didn’t care who got the credit for anything that he did.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Robert Garff announces a donation to the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah in 2007.

Garff and his wife, Katharine, had tested positive for the virus after driving back from a trip to Palm Springs, Calif. They self-quarantined upon returning home and feeling ill.

Robert Garff’s symptoms escalated. He was hospitalized last week and died there.

“It was really unexpected,” Ballard said. “And my mother is still battling this at home.”

Overall, 719 Utahns had tested positive by Sunday. While the state’s tally still only lists two deaths, The Tribune has confirmed at least two more — Garff and a 24-year-old woman who had a heart condition.

Ballard said that her father loved the community. She recalled how he was always saying, “What else can I do?” and “Who else can I help?” He was her model for running for office.

“I remember as a child watching and being part of his campaigns, knocking on doors and talking about issues over the dinner table," she said.

(Tribune file photo) Robert Garff with Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt in 2002.

Garff is perhaps best known for his work leading the 2002 Winter Olympics as the chairman of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. The group was rocked by scandal after an investigation into scholarship payments used by Utah to win the bid and host the games. Several committee members resigned in disgrace. Garff was not involved in the bribes, but he selected Mitt Romney to take over as CEO for Salt Lake City’s festivities.

There was some controversy that Romney and Garff were both members of the dominant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints here. But in a 2007 article in The Boston Globe, Garff defended his decision and faith: “It would have been a disaster if we just picked a stranger and they didn’t understand the mores of this community.”

Garff was also a former area Seventy in the church.

On Sunday, Romney issued a statement saying that Garff’s death “breaks my heart.”

“Bob’s contributions to our state, to our economy, and to our church will be heralded by many,” he said. “But for me, it was his sound and principled leadership as the Chairman of the Olympic Winter Games of 2002 that is most compelling. 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.”

Scott Howell, a former state senator who also worked on the Olympics, called Garff one of the best friends he had in politics — though they were on opposite sides of the aisle. And businessman Paul Huntsman, also owner and publisher of The Tribune, said he got to know Garff over the last two years. The two men did philanthropic work together and Huntsman said he was a frequent customer of Garff’s.

“He really had incredible kindness toward people, which stood out,” Huntsman said. “He was so generous with his time and his genuine interest.”

Garff and his family also donated millions to charity, particularly the American Cancer Society. The family also started their own nonprofit, The Success in Education Foundation, to increase literacy in the state and award scholarships.

Garff was a major contributor to the University of Utah, funding a business school building. Last year, the university announced the Garff family would pay half of the $35 million in donations needed to expand the south end zone at Rice-Eccles Stadium, where the football team plays and where the opening and closing ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics were held. When finished, that end of the stadium will be called the “Ken Garff Performance Zone.”

Garff also supported Proposition 8, California’s same-sex marriage ban, donating $100,000 to the cause in 2009. That caused intense pushback against the family in the state, with several gay-rights group boycotting the family’s dealerships.

On Sunday, Ken Garff Automotive also released a statement, calling the executive “a pioneer in the auto industry and the biggest cheerleader to every employee.”

It continued: “Robert loved his family immensely and will be missed by them as well as his employees and many friends.”

Many more leaders lined up with condolences. Gov. Gary Herbert said that Garff “touched countless lives and gave so much service to our state and its people.”

Speaker of the House Brad Wilson added: “His influence in our state will be deeply missed.”

Garff also served on the board of Intermountain Healthcare and is a former chairman of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. He lived in Bountiful and had five children and 21 grandchildren.

— Salt Lake Tribune editor Matt Canham contributed to this report.