Former Utah Congressman Howard Nielson dies

(Courtesy of C-SPAN) Former Rep. Howard C. Nielson, R-Utah, shown here speaking on the House Floor on Feb. 28, 1990.

Howard Nielson, described by one associate as “the smartest man on the planet,” had already established himself as a mathematical wizard as a professor at Brigham Young University when he jumped into a successful political career at both the state and federal levels.

Nielson, a conservative Republican who was elected in 1982 as the first representative of Utah’s then-new 3rd Congressional District and served four terms, died Wednesday at age 95, his son Jim Nielson wrote in a Facebook post.

“I’m afraid we won’t be able to afford an obituary long enough to cover his remarkable life,” his son wrote.

Gov. Gary Herbert called Nielson “a tremendous example of compassionate leadership, a tireless worker, and a brilliant statistician ... . He was a great public servant in many different venues. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time.”

Nielson was known in Congress for being able to calculate figures in his head as a member of a commerce subcommittee as those figures were presented and correct the witness “down to the decimal point,” said Mike Mower, who was mentored by Nielson as a teenager and spent a year on Nielson’s staff before the congressman retired in 1991.

“Howard had a photographic memory,” Mower said. “He remembered everyone’s name, and his ability to calculate figures in his head was legendary”

He also was dedicated to his task, Mower said.

“During meetings, most members would make an opening statement for the TV cameras, then take off. Howard would stay all the way through. And he would do the math when the bills were being marked up. He would catch a mathematical error and bring it to the chairman’s attention. His abilities were so respected, the committee would unanimously accept the changes he offered.”

Mower was a 15-year-old living in the small Emery County hamlet of Ferron when Nielson ran in a crowded Republican field for the newly approved congressional district in 1982.

“He held a town hall meeting in Ferron and I was the only one who showed up,” Mower said. His campaign people wanted to cancel the meeting and move on, but Howard insisted on staying as long as I wanted and would answer all my questions.

Later, Nielson would become a mentor to Mower as he grew up.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for Howard Nielson,” said Mower, who is deputy chief of staff to Gov. Gary Herbert.

(Courtesy photo | Jim Nielson) This 2009 photo of former Congressman Howard Nielson was posted on the Facebook page of his son, Jim Nielson.

Nielson, born Sept. 12, 1924, in Richfield, attended the University of Utah and the University of Oregon before attaining his doctorate in mathematics at Stanford University.

He was a renowned math professor at BYU, where he founded the statistics department, when he ran for the Utah House in 1966. He served four terms in the body, the last as its speaker.

Eight years later, he returned to the political arena when Utah’s population growth earned the Beehive State a third congressional district. He prevailed as the Republican nominee among 10 GOP hopefuls. He then easily won the general election in what was considered one of the most conservative congressional districts in the country.

While in Congress, Nielson sponsored two resolutions calling on Israel to reopen Palestinian schools and colleges. He co-sponsored a bill to further limit tobacco advertising, which earlier had been banned from television and radio venues.

He was a leading proponent of releasing the names of people who tested positive for AIDS to public health officials, and he was one of the main negotiators of the 1990 Clean Air Act. Nielson also was an early promoter of rating song lyrics to warn parents of genres that were sexually explicit or violent.

As he was gaining seniority, he was moving up the ranks in the minority party, especially on the commerce committee, before suddenly retiring to serve a mission with his wife, Julie, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They served two missions, in Australia and Hungary.

“I asked Howard why would he leave Congress just as he was gaining seniority and more influence?" Mower recalled, “And he told me he promised his wife they would serve a mission.”

When they returned from their missions, Nielson plunged back into politics.

This time, he ran for the Utah Senate and won again.

“I was astounded when I heard he was going to run again,” said former Rep. Chris Cannon, a fellow Republican who was elected to the 3rd District seat six years after Nielson left for his mission. “But he was dedicated to service. It wasn’t about ego, or honor. He just loved to serve."

In his 1996 state Senate race, Nielson was challenged in the Republican convention by a young up-and-coming politician named Curt Bramble.

“I beat him in the convention,” Bramble said. “There were a number of us who believed the party needed new blood. Then he trounced me in the primary. He was a great campaigner.”

Bramble said after that race, Nielson invited him over for a talk and gave him great encouragement.

Like Mower, Bramble was mentored by Nielson, his former rival, who encouraged Bramble to run for his Senate seat when he decided to retire in 2000.

“He helped me a lot,” said Bramble, who has held that Senate seat ever since. “He told me he would always support me under one condition, that I would never tear down my opponent and run only on my own merits and ideas. That was how he did it, and he was a great example.”

Nielson’s son, Howard Nielson Jr., serves as a federal judge in Utah, though his controversial nomination ended in Senate confirmation on a near party-line vote.

Nielson’s first wife died in 2003. They had seven children together.

He later married Donna Packard, the sister of one of his former House colleagues, Ron Packard of California.

Family members plan a private graveside service in Richfield. They hope to hold a larger memorial service when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

— Tribune reporter Thomas Burr contributed to this story.

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