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West Valley City • Karen Lang moved from the couch in her home to a glass cabinet with family heirlooms. She took out a silver caged ball. It was one of her father’s prosthetic heart valves. When her children were young, they would put their ears next to his chest to hear the faint ticking noise. He used to tell them that he had swallowed a clock.
Lang’s father, Dell Diamond, was diagnosed with rheumatic fever, which made his heart grow so big it came within an inch of each side of his rib cage. His doctor told Lang’s mother, Naomi, that he wouldn’t make it to 30. In 1972, he had two valves replaced by the caged balls, and the death forecast didn’t become reality until he turned 61.
This story marked a turning point in the family’s history. Because of her husband’s health, Naomi started selling seedlings she planted in their backyard in Springville. The small venture eventually grew into a greenhouse, a business that inspired three generations, and is the reason Lang moved to West Valley City.
With the founding of her own nursery, Oakbridge Greenhouse, Lang has been a business owner in Utah’s “Second City” for 38 years. She now is poised to make history Jan. 4 as the city’s first female mayor.
“I’m really excited because my granddaughters can understand, ‘Hey, that’s not that hard. I can be a leader and give service to a city,’” Lang said, “so I’m proud of that, for them to be able to see that.”
After two failed attempts at the city’s top post, the 62-year-old Lang finally succeeded this past November, after logging some 20 years of service on the planning commission and the City Council.
As mayor, Lang wants Utah’s second-largest city to keep its small-town feel. She wants to keep residents from moving out by ensuring the city offers different kinds of quality housing. And she wants to support long-term projects that will last when she’s no longer in charge.
While her job at the nursery focuses mainly on gardening, which many see as a soothing activity, Lang doesn’t hesitate to get out of her comfort zone.
She spends summers wake surfing at Lake Powell, and she has a history of combating the angst of waiting for election results in unconventional ways. The day after she first won a seat on the City Council, she went bungee jumping in New Zealand.
Lang’s husband, Brian, sometimes worries about her adventures, but she has no plans to stop. “My obituary would be fun then,” she said, “‘died bungee jumping.’”
Passion for sports
Lang grew up in Springville, which at that time, was rural enough she could ride her horse, Lady, up the mountains. When she turned 16, she traded the horse for a car.
At school, Lang was more interested in watching football and basketball games from the bleachers than joining any club. She kept that fandom but now she shares it with her husband
Lang met Brian at a pool in her apartment complex in Orem when she graduated from high school. She had bought BYU basketball season tickets, so she kept inviting him to games.
“The girls in our family are really big sports people,” she said. “I tell [Brian] he only fell in love with me because of my Danny Ainge tickets.”
The couple keep the sports tradition alive — so much that it won’t be a regular Christmas at the Lang household this year. Lang and her husband will swap the tour to their kids’ houses for a trip to Atlanta to watch the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons play the Detroit Lions. “They have a nice indoor stadium,” she said, “and it just gives us something to do.”
Watching games also keeps Lang’s mind off election night jitters. “It’s just better to go away and be distracted than thinking ‘did I do enough of that?”’ she said, “because you just always second-guess yourself.”
On Nov. 2, when she took the lead on election night, she saw the results from a hotel room in Atlanta, where she traveled to see the Falcons play the Carolina Panthers and stayed on to watch the NBA’s Utah Jazz take on the Hawks.
“It was really exciting,” she said. “I literally went out in the hall of the hotel and ran all the way down and all the way back jumping. Nobody was watching; I could do whatever I wanted.”
Lang’s parents started their greenhouse in Springville when she was 7 years old. She would spend her free time just like her children and grandchildren do now, watering plants on Sundays, and working at the front desk.
She had her doubts about the business back then and kept exploring other options for a career.
“When you grow up in it, it’s not always what you want to be when you grow up,” she said. “I wanted to be a CPA.”
But her husband had inherited land in West Valley City, and her father suggested they turn it into their own greenhouse.
Despite her doubts, owning a greenhouse meant putting into practice what she had learned throughout her life. Most importantly, it offered a way to spend more time with her kids.
She did achieve her career goal before that. After high school, Lang landed jobs in accounting, including at a manufacturing facility that made high-pressure cleaning systems. There, she learned to do plumbing and electrical work. She gathered enough knowledge to build many of her greenhouse’s installations from scratch.
“It was a good learning process to get the accounting and then get the physical skills and then be able to start this,” she said. “It kind of played out perfectly.”
A longtime neighbor has witnessed Lang’s handiwork.
“She figures things out and she can put things together,” said Jodi Wilson, who has worked at the greenhouse for more than 24 years. Wilson also has seen Lang’s leadership in action. Sometimes, all it takes is her remembering facts about people and then connecting them.
“She’s been doing a great job for the city,” Wilson said. “She’s always got West Valley residents foremost in her mind and is trying to do what is best for us and to live here in the city.”
The move to West Valley City
Lang moved to West Valley City in 1985, into an area once called Granger. It was a year after she and Brian opened Oakbridge Greenhouse.
In the greenhouse, her four children and nine grandchildren made forts, rode three-wheelers and, in the winter, when the greenhouse was cleared, they would set up a trampoline and a grill.
She wouldn’t have entered municipal politics if it weren’t for her kids.
Lang was helping her son with his Eagle Scout project, a welcome to West Valley City sign on Bangerter Highway when she had contact with the City Council. Among discussions about the sign, Janice Fisher, then a West Valley City Council member, noticed how eager Lang was to help promote the city.
Nominated by Fisher, she started her civic service on the planning commission. She was on that panel for a decade. During that stint, Lang fought to boost the quality of housing.
“I wanted to bring us up a little bit more. So instead of having these small lots with small houses, with just vinyl or aluminum siding on them, I wanted better and bigger. And so that’s what I’ve pushed for since ‘97,” she said. “And now we have developments with million-dollar homes in them with 15,000-square-foot lots. And it’s worked out really well.”
Now, when Lang sits in a specific chair in the middle of her workday at Oakbridge Greenhouse, people know she’s working on “city stuff.”
Residents know they can ask questions about what happened in a council meeting and developers are welcome to pitch ideas or ask for suggestions. It’s a habit Lang cultivated decades ago.
“She has no boundaries,” chimed in daughter Ashley Jeavons. “Any time people can just come up to her and talk to her and she is fully engaged.
“She genuinely cares about improving the city and making people either want to grow old here or move here from other cities,” Jeavons said. “As a kid, I loved growing up here. That was really fun, and it’s changed a little bit, but it’s nice to see it getting nicer and better.”
Jeavons is now in the process of building her own greenhouse in Cedar Fort. After working in a traditional office environment, she realized that she wanted to offer her kids the same experience she got as a child.
“It gave us a lot of time as a family because their work season was fairly short,” she said. “And then we got a lot of really quality time together that I don’t think many people get with working parents.”
What can West Valley expect?
Lang sees her ascension to mayor as a continuation of her council service.
She wants all the decisions the city makes today to still stand up 100 years from now. That goes for projects such as new commercial buildings and figuring out ordinances to ensure new developments have enough on-site parking so that cars don’t intrude on other neighborhoods.
“I just want to work on whatever needs we have at the moment,” she said, “just keep working with the citizens for what they need to get done.”
City beautification also ranks high on her priority list. That means more trees and flowers — after all, she knows how to plant a good bunch of them.
She intends to keep pushing developers to elevate standards and make aesthetically pleasing projects. She hopes to see bigger single-family homes to keep residents from leaving in search of larger houses.
“They would move to Riverton or South Jordan. And I just said, ‘I’m tired of losing all my friends to other cities,’ ” Lang said, “So I started pushing for bigger homes, and now instead of moving out, a lot of them stay.”
Overall, Lang is excited to work to improve the quality of life for residents, she said, “making it a community that everybody wants to stay in forever.”
Oh, and she’s excited to cheer for the Falcons over the holiday weekend.
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.