Ted Wilson, an ‘eternal optimist’ and former Salt Lake City mayor, dies at 84

The family of the three-term mayor said on Thursday that Wilson died of congestive heart failure and Parkinson’s disease.

(Lynn R. Johnson | The Salt Lake Tribune) In this undated photograph, Ted Wilson sits in the caucus room of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. Wilson, 84, died on April 11, 2024.

Ted Wilson, who was elected to three terms as mayor of Salt Lake City and narrowly lost a bid for governor, died Thursday due to congestive heart failure and Parkinson’s disease. He was 84.

Wilson was elected mayor in November 1975 and served 10 years in the office, leaving to become the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. He ran for U.S. Senate against incumbent Sen. Orrin Hatch in 1982 and, in 1988, was the Democratic nominee for governor.

“He changed this city,” said Tim Chambless, a long-time friend and former staffer in Wilson’s administration. “He changed lives.”

In the closing weeks of the race, polls showed Wilson with a sizable lead over Republican Norm Bangerter and independent Merrill Cook in a three-way race, but Bangerter eked out the victory by barely 11,000 votes.

“I’ve always said to myself that if you have to hatch out better things for yourself through public office, you’re in it for the wrong reasons,” Wilson said reflecting on the defeat in 2017. “If you can’t retreat back to where you were before, you’ve cheated reason.”

No Democrat has held the office since.

Wilson was an accomplished mountaineer — climbing peaks in the Alps, Alaska and the Andes — and was a founding member of the Alpenbock Climbing Club. In 1961, Wilson and club member Bob Stout made a first ascent in Little Cottonwood Canyon on a route they later named Chickenhead Holiday, introducing the world to the canyon’s premier climbing

He was also a leader on environmental issues, serving as director of the Utah Rivers Council, environmental advisor to Gov. Gary Herbert and director of the Utah Clean Air Partnership, among other other roles.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ted Wilson at the Alpenbock Loop in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Wednesday, July 19, 2023.

In a statement Thursday, his family said Wilson died surrounded by his family.

“As the eternal optimist, he loved people and they loved him back. We are honored that his memory will live on in the legacy he built as Salt Lake City mayor, through the countless people he has taught and mentored, his decades of humanitarian service, and his mountaineering accomplishments,” the statement read. “Ted’s lifetime priorities were his family and public service. He built and nurtured many deep and meaningful friendships and would remind us all to ‘never sweat the small stuff.’”

On Thursday, Salt Lake Mayor Erin Mendenhall said Wilson “was my mentor, my cherished friend and someone I could always count on.

“To this city, he was a giant and a champion. His legacy is a permanent thread in our City’s story,” she said. “He was a committed leader, a driver of progress and someone willing to listen, learn, and evolve.”

(Blake Apgar | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson fills sandbags with her father, former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson, in Midvale on Friday, March 17, 2023. The county is preparing for potential flooding during runoff season in the Wasatch Mountains.

Wilson launched his mayoral bid in 1975, after having worked on political campaigns, pulling off an upset against an incumbent mayor and sitting city commissioner.

During his tenure as mayor, Wilson oversaw the reconstruction and expansion of the Salt Lake City airport and the city’s response to massive flooding in 1983 that saw City Creek turn part of downtown into a river.

Palmer DePaulis, who served on the city council and later as Wilson’s public works director before being his successor as mayor, said Wilson’s cool head and unifying leadership helped rally the community to respond to the torrential runoff.

“He just had an instinct to make people just relax and feel like their lives weren’t coming apart,” DePaulis said Thursday. “He conveyed confidence, and within days the city under him had put bridges over the water, the sandbagging. He brought everyone together and made people feel like, ‘OK, we’re all in this together and we’re going to make it.’”

Amid a corruption scandal involving the city commission, Wilson initiated a change to the current council format that also saw council members representing specific districts for the first time.

“He used to joke that all of the commissioners lived within a block of each other, so there was no representation for the rest of the city,” said Cindy Gust-Jensen, who was a young staffer in the Wilson administration and now is the executive director of the council. “[The change] really brought a lot of transparency and accountability.”

(AP) Ted Wilson gives a thumbs up after repairs were made to abate flooding along North Temple in 1983.

Wilson spearheaded the efforts to preserve the Salt Lake City and County Building when it began to crumble, create a historic district to preserve The Avenues neighborhood and build a new sewage treatment plant to replace one that was prone to overflowing.

He led a movement to preserve the city’s foothills and helped to lay the groundwork for the Bonneville Shoreline Trail.

“He was just able to make fast friends and he genuinely cared about people. I really wouldn’t have the job I have today but for his mentorship and kindness and support. He’s just one in a million,” said Gust-Jensen.

Born May 18, 1939, in Salt Lake City, to working-class parents — his mother was a hospital switchboard operator, his father owned a tent and awning shop — Wilson grew up steeped in Democratic politics.

“The only time we dressed up was on Sundays — to listen to FDR Fireside Chats,” he recalled in a 2003 interview. “I was 14 before I realized ‘damn Republicans’ was two words.”

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson, seen here in a 2007 photo, with his wife Holly Mullen at the City-County building, which he helped preserve during his tenure as mayor. Wilson died Thursday at age 84.

He graduated from South High School, earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Utah and a master’s degree in education from the University of Washington. In 1962, he married his high school sweetheart, Kathy Carling, and the couple had five children.

He served in the Utah Army National Guard from 1957 to 1963 and taught economics at Skyline High School for seven years, spending several of his summers as a park ranger in Grand Teton National Park.

In the summer of 1967, Wilson and six other climbers executed a harrowing rescue of a climber who had broken a leg scaling the treacherous north face of the Grand Teton. He received a reward for valor from the U.S. Interior Department the following year for his role in the rescue and his daughter, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, made a documentary about the rescue in 2012.

“We spent three days on the face,” Ted Wilson later recalled. “At the time it was the most technical rescue in North America.” He worked as chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Wayne Owens before being appointed as director of the Salt Lake County Department of Social Services in 1975 and then being elected mayor later that year.

As director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, he helped shape the political lives of many young people, said Utah House Minority Leader Angela Romero, who participated in a Hinckley internship in 1994 during Wilson’s tenure.

“Mayor Wilson’s support and guidance have been invaluable throughout my career, instilling in me a deep sense of compassion and commitment to making a positive difference in the world,” Romero said.

Thursday afternoon, Gov. Spencer Cox ordered flags to be lowered across the state in Wilson’s honor.

“Ted Wilson devoted most of his life to public service,” Cox said in a statement. “As a Utah National Guardsman, Salt Lake City’s mayor, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics and a trusted advisor to Gov. Gary Herbert, Ted always put people over politics.”

He later married Holly Mullen, a former editor and columnist at The Salt Lake Tribune, and was stepfather to her two children.