Matt Hillyard was friends with every Utah governor for decades. He had free access anywhere at the Legislature. A university building and a key scholarship are named for him. But he wasn’t a powerful politician or donor. He had Down syndrome.
The 42-year-old son of Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, died peacefully Thursday morning, the Utah Senate announced. That evoked online mourning from Republicans and Democrats, everyone from Gov. Gary Herbert to legislators and even news reporters.
Matt for years was everyone’s friend at the Capitol as he often accompanied his father, currently the longest-serving Utah lawmaker, who has been in the Legislature since 1981.
Matt would often sit next to Senate presidents as they presided, or wander the halls to give hugs or high-fives. Both houses would sing happy birthday to him every year — and held a special karaoke party (to which Matt would personally invite everyone he saw) that would draw almost all state officials and their often off-tune singing.
Herbert tweeted Thursday, “We love you, Matt. Thanks for sharing your light with us for so many years. God be with you till we meet again.”
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, a former state senator and a Democrat, posted, “Matt Hillyard was a bright light in the Utah Senate and always welcomed me back to the Capitol with a hug and huge smile. You will be missed.”
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, posted pictures of Matt with governors and leaders and noted on one photo with the late Gov. Olene Walker that Matt “has been connected for a long time.”
Weiler also posted, “When Matt was born with his disabilities, his family created the Matthew David Hillyard scholarship at the USU [Utah State University] College of Education. It is used to fund scholarships for students majoring in Special Ed.”
USU also is home to the Matthew Hillyard Animal Teaching and Research Center. His father pushed for state funding for that building. University officials noted when it was named for him that Matt often attended the school’s football and basketball games, campus receptions and agricultural events.
Politicians would joke that Matt liked everyone — even news reporters.
Fox 13 television reporter Ben Winslow tweeted Thursday, for example, “You were always a friendly face on the Hill. Capitol Karaoke will be a lot less fun without you.”
Senate leaders wrote on a Tweet that announced Matt’s death, “Oh, how we love Matt and will deeply miss him!”