Gehrke: Why Matt Hillyard was the most universally beloved figure at the Utah Capitol

In this undated photo provided by the Utah Senate, Matthew Hillyard, left, and his father, Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, read a card at the state Capitol. Matthew Hillyard died Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, at age 42.

Every year, it would unfold the same way: Crunch time in the legislative session, juggling about 20 issues, editors eager for stories, some senator dodging questions, tensions are high and everyone’s nerves are frayed.

Then I would run into Matt Hillyard and his beaming smile and he would offer a hug or a high-five. Suddenly things were OK.

For Matt’s birthday, there would always be folding chairs and a karaoke machine in the massive marble rotunda, and legislators and lobbyists, interns and, yes, reporters, would join Matt in a version of “The Capitol’s Got Talent.”

It didn’t matter that there wasn’t all that much talent. Matt wanted to sing, and he wanted everyone to sing with him, so Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and the theme from “Titanic” would echo from the Senate chamber to the governor’s office.

Each year of karaoke was one more that Matt wasn’t supposed to have. He was born with Down syndrome and wasn’t expected to live past his teens. Still, when he died peacefully last week at age 42, it was crushing news.

Senators and elected officials quickly offered heartfelt condolences. Matt had more sessions under his belt and more seniority than pretty much anyone else in the Senate except his dad, Sen. Lyle Hillyard.

He was easily the most universally beloved figure at the Capitol, because he was the most universally loving.

“The one pure soul in that place,” is how former Sen. Steve Urquhart put it.

“A moment with Matt always provided much needed succor from the storm, leveling and brightening everyone who crossed his path and was soon wrapped in his loving arms,” Urquhart wrote. In a place where so much depended on who was with you or against you, “Matt was always 100 percent with you. And he would tell you. ‘Hey! You’re my friend!’”

One of Matt’s best friends was Leslie McLean, the secretary of the Senate and one of the busiest people in the building during the session. Matt took a liking to her early on, and she to him, and he would come to her desk and rearrange the papers; he would want to know what the schedule for the day would be — which people he would get to meet — and they would sing songs.

When McLean was overwhelmed by the pace of the session, she said, Matt would tell her: “Sally” — he couldn’t pronounce her name — “you need to chill.”

“I told the president, I don’t know how we’re going to have a session without Matt,” McLean said. “I am so grateful that Matt is no longer suffering with what he suffered with his body, and yet I feel so sad for us not being able to have that, the little check. ‘Yeah. That’s right, you just need to chill.’”

I also like to think that Matt’s presence served as a reminder to everyone in the Legislature of why they were there and whom they were serving. Matt wasn’t political, he wasn’t partisan. By a genetic fluke, he faced challenges. But he was no different from countless Utahns, good people all facing their own challenges and counting on lawmakers to strive to be good, as well.

No, they didn’t always do the right thing, but maybe it made them try a little harder.

So thanks, Matt. Thanks for the hugs and the high-fives and the songs. Thanks to Lyle and Alice Hillyard for letting us share his spirit.

He will be missed, but I hope, for those lives he touched, his example won’t be forgotten. Because in a body where power can be wielded like a weapon, Matt’s power was always kindness.

We need more of that in the Legislature.

And in life.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.