Barbara L. Tanner, Utah human-rights advocate and arts patron, dies at 103

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Barbara Lindquist Tanner, community leader, human rights activist and philanthropist is given an honorary degree during University of Utah's commencement ceremonies on Thursday, May 3, 2018, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.

Barbara L. Tanner, who used her family’s jewelry fortune to support human rights and the arts in Utah, has died at the age of 103.

Tanner died Thursday from heart failure, according to an obituary posted by Lindquist Mortuaries.

“Barbara’s a radical,” her friend Mary Dickson, a retired executive at public television station KUED, said in a 2018 video tribute made by the University of Utah when Tanner received an honorary doctorate, when she was 101. “She believes in radical kindness, she believes in radical goodness and radical change.”

Norman Tanner had built the jewelry business his uncle, Obert, had founded, O.C. Tanner, into a global operation, with Barbara at his side for 78 years of marriage. Barbara, family members said, supported her husband’s work by being hostess to dinner parties for salesmen and clients, and often traveling with him. She also took the lead in raising their four children.

Barbara helped Norman teach his male employees to accept women in the workforce, she said in that 2018 video.

“A lot of the salesmen used to be kind of afraid of [women],” Barbara Tanner said. “They didn’t know to handle a woman who was in a position in authority. But Norman was very relaxed about that. He used to help them, and tell them what to do, until men got used to working with women.”

Barbara Tanner espoused the power of the arts. “I don’t think you can live without the arts,” she said in 2018. “They represent, in some ways, the best we’ve ever created, and we can leave it for our posterity.”

(Photo courtesy of Utah Symphony) Barbara Tanner, second from left, and other board members of the Utah Symphony look over the nearly completed construction of Symphony Hall (now Abravanel Hall) in this undated photo. Also in the photo, from left, are Barbara Scowcroft, Gordon Weggeland and Scott Gilmore.

Barbara Tanner served at various times on the boards of Utah Symphony | Utah Opera, Friends of KUED and the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation. As board chairwoman, she is credited with moving the piano foundation’s competition from Provo to its current home in Salt Lake City.

“Without Barbara Tanner, there probably wouldn’t have been a Gina Bachauer,” Jay L. Beck, the former head of the competition, said in 2018. “She brought life to us. Through Barbara, the Bachauer competition flourished.”

The Tanners also endowed the principal clarinet chair for the Utah Symphony, a seat now held by clarinetist Tad Calcara.

Barbara Tanner also believed the humanities could make someone a better person. “I don’t care how skilled you are in some field,” she said. “If you don’t have a feeling and a love for your community, and how you’re affecting other people, you’re probably not going to do anything good in this world.”

In 2006, the Tanners, along with their daughter, Deb Sawyer, founded the Barbara L. and Norman C. Tanner Center for Nonviolent Human Rights Advocacy at the U. — now simply called the Tanner Center for Human Rights. Barbara remained co-chairwoman until her death.

“We were both, in a sense, rebels, and we just wanted to see some real social change,” Barbara Tanner said in a tribute to Norman for his 100th birthday, shortly before his death in 2015.

Norman Tanner’s pacifism was fueled by his experiences in World War II, including being on hand for the liberation of Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp outside of Munich. Norman didn’t talk about Dachau much, though he once called it “the most disturbing thing that ever happened to me in my life.”

Barbara said Norman became “a real peacenik” when he came back from the war.

(Tribune file photo) Norman and Barbara Tanner at a United Way benefit in 2007.

The Tanner Center encourages University of Utah students and others to advocate for human rights and peacemaking, urging conflict resolution and nonviolence through education, internships and student engagement.

Barbara was politically active throughout her life. In the 1950s, according to her family, she joined the Women’s Legislative Council of Utah, and co-led Citizens for Eisenhower, when President Dwight Eisenhower ran for reelection in 1956. She switched to the Democratic Party during the Vietnam War, and stayed a Democrat for the rest of her life. She also, for a time, served on the board of Planned Parenthood of Utah.

Age did not dim her political fire. In 2017, at the age of 100, she wrote a letter to the editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, saying she didn’t need or want the tax cut the Trump administration was seeking for wealthy people like her. In 2018, she donated $20,000 to the campaign for Proposition 3, the ballot measure to expand Medicaid in Utah.

Barbara Lindquist was born Jan. 14, 1917, in Ogden. She grew up there with her two siblings, learning about community service from their mother, Ada, who worked hard helping others while her husband, Charles, worked at his job, according to a biography by the U.’s Tanner Center for Human Rights.

She attended Ogden High School, Weber Junior College (now Weber State University) and the University of Utah, where she received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1937. At the U., she also was a star of the debate team, and one of her toughest opponents was Norman Tanner. They married the same year Barbara graduated.

Barbara Tanner is survived by her three daughters — Susan Chapman, Deon Hilger and Deb Sawyer — and their spouses; five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Her husband, Norman; their son, Clark L. Tanner; her sister, Jean Pell; and her brother, John Lindquist, died previously.

In lieu of flowers, family members suggest a contribution in Barbara Tanner’s name to the Tanner Center for Human Rights, Utah Symphony | Utah Opera, KUED, Planned Parenthood or an organization of one’s choice.

Private graveside services have been held. Family members hope to hold a memorial in late summer, when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.