Norma Matheson, the ‘godmother’ of the Utah Democratic Party, dies at 89

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Norma Matheson in 2004.

Norma Matheson, a former first lady, the matriarch of Utah’s most prominent Democratic family, and “the godmother of the party,” died late Sunday after battling leukemia. She was 89.

Friends remembered Matheson as a gracious, thoughtful friend, an astute political strategist and a trailblazer for women in politics at a time when there were few role models. Her children said they “owe everything to her.”

“Our dear and amazing mother, grandmother, and great grandmother, Norma Matheson, passed away last night, having lived a life to be admired, celebrated, and loved,” her children said in a statement Monday. “She brought empathy, grace, and common sense to everything she did."

State Rep. Patrice Arent, who grew up across the street from the Mathesons, called her “Utah’s Eleanor Roosevelt" because of all she accomplished as first lady and beyond.

Gov. Gary Herbert said she was the “perfect teammate” for her husband, the late Gov. Scott Matheson.

“Energetic and intelligent, she led causes that changed Utah’s future for the better,” Herbert said. “She raised a family that is dedicated to public service. I’m so grateful to have known Norma. She was a tremendous mother, advocate, and person.”

[Read what some of Utah’s political leaders remember about Norma Matheson]

Norma Warenski was born in Nephi in 1929 to Leo Warenski, a country doctor, and his wife, Ardella. The family moved to Philadelphia and then San Francisco as her father went back to medical school to become an obstetrician.

They moved back to Salt Lake City, where she met her future husband, Scott Matheson at East High School. They both were 16 years old.

“We met in high school, and it seems we’ve known each other all our lives,” Norma told the Deseret News in 1989.

They married in 1951, while Scott was completing law school at Stanford. They moved back to Utah and built a home next door to her parents. Their eldest son, Scott Jr., was born in 1953, followed by a daughter, Lu, and sons Jim and Tom.

In 2004, Jim Matheson, then a member of Congress, recalled that when he was growing up, his mother made tuna casserole, served as a den mother and on the PTA, organized youth tennis and worked as president of the League of Women Voters.

Scott Matheson worked as a prosecutor at the Salt Lake County attorney’s office and later for Union Pacific Railroad. When Cal Rampton opted to not run for a fourth term as Utah governor in 1976, Scott Matheson decided to enter politics. Norma said she was the last in the family to support the move.

He won the election, and she spent eight years as first lady, focusing her efforts on aging issues, visiting every senior center in the state, as well as education, health care and the restoration of the governor’s mansion. She was a partner and confidante to her husband, who credited her with having the sharpest political mind in the family.

In 1989, Scott Matheson was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer believed to have been caused by his exposure to radioactive fallout from Nevada nuclear tests. Initial treatments were successful, but the disease came back more aggressively and he died in October 1990. He was 61.

“All I wanted was 10 more years,” a despondent Norma Matheson said at the time, according to Tim Chambless, a political science professor at the University of Utah who worked on the governor’s staff.

“Our parents shared a storybook romance and marriage, partners in parenting and public service,” her children said in their statement. “When she lost our dad much too soon, she rededicated herself to community engagement and friendships. He would have been very proud.”

She served on dozens of boards, including the University of Utah College of Nursing, Hogle Zoo, Salt Lake League of Women Voters, Children’s Museum of Utah, the Utah Symphony and many others.

She was a longtime board member of The Nature Conservancy, which worked to acquire and protect wetlands near Moab, now called the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve, and also served on the board of the Grand Canyon Trust. She stood alongside then-President Bill Clinton in 1996, when he famously designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

“Norma and her late husband, Scott, became great friends of Hillary’s and mine when we served together as governors,” Clinton said at the time. “After Scott passed away, Norma honored me by asking me to come to Utah to speak at a dinner in his honor for a foundation set up in his memory. … Both of them are truly wonderful human beings, and I am very grateful for her presence here today and for her commitment.”

Norma Matheson also became a largely behind-the-scenes matriarch of the Utah Democratic Party.

Arent, a state representative, recalls her parents having long talks about politics with Scott and Norma and getting tomatoes from her immaculate garden. “She was like my second mom,” Arent said.

When Arent ran for the Legislature, Norma Matheson would come with her to knock on doors and people would run out of their houses to talk to her.

“It was like walking the streets with a rock star,” Arent said. People would invite her into their homes to see a new painting or a new dog they had adopted and Matheson always graciously obliged. And she was relentless, wanting to finish one more block, walking through neighborhoods well after all of the other volunteers had gone home.

When Arent was diagnosed with the same cancer that claimed Scott Matheson, Norma called to reassure her about the advances in treatments. They last spoke by phone two weeks ago. Both were undergoing treatment at Huntsman Cancer Institute, Arent said, but had appointments at different times and planned to see each other soon.

Meghan Holbrook, a former chairwoman of the Utah Democratic Party and friend of the Mathesons, described Norma as “politically shrewd.”

"She could play three-dimensional chess,” Holbrook said. “I know she advised her sons, and their father was a terrific man, but I think Norma had the political instinct in the family. And all in a velvet glove.”

Leading up to the 2000 election, Holbrook recalled, prominent Democrats were meeting to brainstorm who would be the best candidate to run for the 2nd Congressional District, each taking turns making a case for one candidate or the other.

“Norma said in a very quiet voice, ‘You know, you might want to talk to my son Jim,’” Holbrook said. “We all turned around and said, ‘Jim wants to run for Congress?’ And she just said, ‘I think you should talk to him,’ and she smiled. And the rest is history.”

Jim Matheson won the 2000 election and served seven terms in the U.S. House before retiring. Throughout his service, he called his mother every day, he said.

Karen Shepherd, a former congresswoman, said his mother remained his staunchest defender.

“If you ever said one bad word about Jim," Shepherd said, “she had fire in her eyes. And she was the fiercest defender of her family you could find anywhere.”

Scott Matheson Jr. was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2004 but lost the race to Gov. Jon Huntsman. Since 2010, he has served as a federal appeals court judge.

In 2013, Norma Matheson helped launch Count My Vote, along with prominent businesswoman Gail Miller and former Gov. Mike Leavitt, which eventually led to a change in state law opening up Utah’s political primary process.

Leavitt called her “one of Utah’s greatest first ladies.”

“She was a stalwart Utahn making a positive difference in the lives of people all over the state,” Leavitt said. "We celebrate her life and contributions while offering our condolences to the Matheson family. Norma Matheson was a great Utahn.”

She remained active in civic organizations, child advocacy, education and environmental causes until she was diagnosed with leukemia about a month ago, Shepherd said. Her condition deteriorated rapidly, and she went into hospice last week.

“It’s just so sad,” Shepherd said. “She was planning her 90th birthday and the family was going to gather and it was going to be a big deal. Now they’re gathering for another reason.”

Holbrook said Matheson is irreplaceable.

“She was the godmother of the party,” she said. “I think it’s true of so many women in politics; their impact is much greater than you think. ... I truly was in awe of the woman.”

Matheson is survived by her brother, Jim, four children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Memorial arrangements are pending.