Gail Blattenberger was a tiny woman in a big wheelchair.
Residents around Salt Lake City’s 9th and 9th district may recall seeing Gail wheeling down 900 South, hurrying to catch a bus that would transport her to her work, to her favorite swimming pool at the University of Utah swimming pool, to tutor students in English at Guadalupe Center or to attend any number of rallies for voting or civil rights.
They may even remember seeing her just wheeling into the Coffee Garden at 9th and 9th for a faithful latte.
Unfortunately, those familiar sightings came to an end on the afternoon Dec. 4, when Gail passed away after a long and courageous battle with multiple sclerosis, or MS, a chronic disease of the central nervous system. She was 76 years old.
People may remember seeing Gail, but they probably don’t know much about who she was. Whenever Gail showed up to a rally or panel held at the Utah State Capitol or at Utah Valley University, I never quite knew how she got there, but she did. Such determination is indicative of how Gail lived her life.
Raised with an awareness of racial inequalities, Gail traveled to Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963, for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As a young sophomore at Smith College in East Hampton, Massachusetts, Gail was one of 29 students from the North who traveled to St. Augustine, Florida, to take part in a tutorial program arranged by chaplains from Dartmouth College and Yale University in 1965. She would later return to St. Augustine to teach mathematics to Black high school students attending segregated schools.
While in St. Augustine, Gail lived with a woman named Mrs. Loucille Plummer, a Black civil rights activist and the secretary for the state headquarters of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. One night, as Mrs. Plummer and her guests were inside the house, Mrs. Palmer’s son reported seeing three white men speed off in a truck. They had thrown a beach ball wrapped in burlap and filled with kerosene beneath a 100-gallon gas tank outside of her home. Mrs. Palmer and Gail were able to escape the house and douse the flames with water.
The firebomb had blown the cap off of the gas tank, which was empty and did not explode. It is not difficult to imagine what would have happened had the gas tank been full. The events of that harrowing day demonstrates the danger civil rights workers of all races endured throughout the country during the height of the Civil Rights movement.
In July 2012, Gail was honored at the 6th Annual ACCORD Freedom Trail Luncheon commemorating the 48th Anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in St. Augustine.
Neither the attempt on her life, nor being hit by a car on two separate occasions while in her wheelchair, nor her MS diagnosis would deter Gail from her advocacy work.
She would go on to teach econometrics, environmental economics and macroeconomics with a focus on economic inequality at the University of Utah. Her work led her to conduct one of the first comprehensive studies on how Utahns should pay for water. She was also one of the first to sound the alarm about the infeasibility of the Lake Powell Pipeline and its cost. Twenty-two faculty and professional Utah economists signed a letter supporting her analysis. Gail’s work had a tremendous influence on the legislature’s decision to delay the pipeline’s proposal indefinitely.
When she was not teaching economics at the university, Gail organized the annual Beat the Bomb: Total Elimination of All Nuclear Weapons rallies that featured Congolese and Japanese Taiko drummers.
Gail lived life on her own terms, even after being stricken by a debilitating disease. Multiple sclerosis robbed the activist of her mobility but not her determination to live in a more just and equitable world. Gail Blattenberger made a difference in people’s lives.
Utah is a better place because Gail Blattenberger chose to make Salt Lake City her home. In her words, “We certainly made a difference, but I think we have a ways to go, too.”
Darlene McDonald is the director of 1Utah Project, a nonprofit she founded to promote civil engagement within the BIPOC community in Utah.
Correction • This story was updated to correct Gail Blattenberger’s medical condition.
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