John Ulibarri, Utah’s first Latino lawmaker, dies at age 81

The Ogden educator made history by serving a term in the state House.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) John Ulibarri, the first Latino to serve in the Utah state Legislature, photographed in 2010.

Utah’s first Latino state lawmaker, John Ulibarri, a longtime educator and principal in Weber County, died earlier this month at the age of 81.

His son and namesake, John Ulibarri II, says the legislative distinction mattered to his father. But the senior Ulibarri seemed to prize other aspects of his time as a lawmaker above making history.

“He was happy to be a first, I guess,” he said. “But it wasn’t the first that was the big deal — it was the service.”

Ulibarri II, who is the Weber County assessor, said his father modeled community service and taught him the importance of doing good in the world. Ulibarri’s favorite job was as a school principal, collaborating with other passionate educators and investing in students, his son said.

However, his election to the state Capitol in the 1970s was a remarkable achievement, said Rep. Mark Wheatley.

“He was a trailblazer,” said Wheatley, one of three Latinx lawmakers currently serving in the Utah Legislature. “If you look over the history of the Legislature being overwhelmingly white males of the prominent religion, to be elected to serve in the House was a big accomplishment.”

But Ulibarri told the Tribune in 2010 that his election as the first Latino state lawmaker came and went without any fanfare at the time. In fact, a newspaper reporter was the one to inform him that he might be blazing a trail.

“We didn’t grasp the importance of it at the time,” he said in the interview. “I didn’t realize I was the first.”

Ulibarri said he did know he’d have an uphill battle as a Latino Democrat running to represent a majority-white district near Ogden. He was also doubtful he could win because he was an Assemblies of God church member, while most voters in his community were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Though he made history in Utah by winning his race in 1976, Ulibarri’s tenure in the state Legislature was short, and he spent only two years in his seat before losing a bid for reelection.

“You always have regrets,” he told the Tribune 10 years ago. “But there’s a point and time when you need to walk away.”

Even now, there are only six racial and ethnic minorities in the Utah Legislature, Wheatley notes.

“We’ve made some inroads,” the Salt Lake City Democrat said. “But we have a lot more to do.”

Decades after his service, the Utah Legislature in 2010 presented Ulibarri with a citation honoring his service in the House of Representatives. Wheatley said he researched Ulibarri for the legislative recognition and appreciated the ex-lawmaker’s background as an educator, his civic involvement and his determination to run for a House seat despite the challenges.

Ulibarri was born in Colorado in 1939 as the youngest of four children and moved to Utah with his family a few years later, according to his obituary. After graduating from high school, he served a time in the U.S. Coast Guard before heading to Missouri to attend Evangel University.

There, he met his future wife, Mary Kirschner. The two later moved to Ogden, where Ulibarri became the first Hispanic student to earn a bachelor’s degree from Weber State University.

Ulibarri worked for decades as an educator, starting out as a junior high history teacher, his obituary states. He spent most of his career in the Ogden School District, where he worked as a principal at C.H. Taylor and Polk elementary schools before his retirement in 1997.

“He relished working with kids and his fellow educators more than anything else,” his obituary states.

He was a “snappy dresser” and active golfer, the obituary continues. He also loved craftsmanship, building everything from an outdoor deck to a wooden toy box that his son has kept to this day, the younger Ulibarri said. And after Hurricane Katrina, Ulibarri packed up his drills and chainsaw and headed down to Houston and New Orleans a couple of times to help people rebuild.

“He was such a great teacher, and he did stuff by example,” Ulibarri II said. “It’s easy to sit down and espouse platitudes or things like that. But I learned most of the things I know now just from watching my dad.”

The older Ulibarri died Dec. 12 at a South Ogden assisted living center after a “long and courageous battle” with Parkinson’s disease, according to the obituary. He is survived by Mary, his wife of 55 years; his son, John Ulibarri II; and two granddaughters.

The family is inviting people to donate to The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research in lieu of buying flowers.