Ted Wilson

May 18, 1939 - April 11, 2024
Ted Wilson

In the early morning of April 11, 2024, we sent Ted Wilson on his greatest adventure yet. He passed peacefully at home, of congestive heart failure and complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was embraced by a loving family that let him go, with a shimmering crescent moon and a wide trail of stars to lead him on his way.

Ted was an incomparable son, husband, dad, Poppy, friend, teacher, leader, adventurer, and guru. An eternal optimist, he simply loved people, and they loved him back. 

Ted Lewis Wilson was born in Salt Lake City on May 18,1939, the first child of Robert Lawrence Wilson and Eva Simpson, who was a great-granddaughter of Orson Pratt. He enjoyed his “miracle child” status, arriving 16 years after his parents’ marriage. They named him for jazz musician Ted Lewis (no, not Theodore or Edward), whose band Bob had played in. Ted and his younger brother Larry grew up in the Sugar House area, where they played with friends in open fields and orchards, went to 25-cent movies and attempted to “climb” Mount Olympus on their own at ages 10 and 8. That attempt ended safely at about 3900 South–where they turned around and went home.

And that was just the beginning of his adventures.

As a proud South High “Paw” from the class of 1957, Ted began exploring Utah’s Wasatch mountains with friends who shared his passion. These pioneers of mountaineering formed the Alpenbock Climbing Club, establishing many of the popular routes in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Ted and Bob Stout made the first recorded ascent in Little Cottonwood Canyon in 1961, naming the route “Chickenhead Holiday,” due to its many rock protrusions. The “Bocks” forged lifelong friendships on the granite, putting their utmost trust in each other with every pitch. Ted went on to climb in the Alps, Alaska, and the Andes. But his most sacred summit was the Grand Teton–which he climbed 74 times. 

 Ted enlisted in the Utah Army National Guard and was on active status during the Berlin crisis in the early 1960s. 

Following his Army service and as a University of Utah student, cheerleader, and member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity, Ted met Kathy Carling, and they married in 1963. Their first adventure was a move to Switzerland, with seven-month-old Ben, where Ted taught skiing at the Leysin American School for a year. He perfected his skiing there and scaled many of Europe’s most notable climbing routes.

Ted and Kathy returned to Salt Lake City in 1965 and Jenny was born. Ted began teaching civics and economics at Skyline High School, mentoring and influencing students in practical politics. Ted earned a master’s degree in education from the University of Washington in 1969. The growing family moved back from Seattle, and Missy was born.

With summers off from teaching, Ted and the family lived in Grand Teton National Park, where he served as a Jenny Lake climbing ranger. In August 1967, Ted and six of his fellow rangers were summoned to the north face of the Grand to save a critically injured climber. They spent three harrowing days bringing him to safety. For their effort, the team received the U.S. Department of Interior’s Valor Award in Washington, D.C.

Ted’s daughter Jenny later told the story in “The Grand Rescue,” a documentary that aired on over 100 PBS stations and at national film festivals. Following in her father’s political footsteps, Jenny now serves as Salt Lake County’s Mayor.

While Ted was at Skyline, a charismatic young politician, U.S. Congressman Wayne Owens, visited his classroom. They hit it off, and not long after, Ted was chief of staff in Wayne’s congressional office. Later, during Owens’ run for U.S. Senate, Ted would sometimes sit in for Owens in debates. (Owens was stuck in D.C. serving on the House Judiciary Committee as it investigated the Watergate scandal.) Wayne lost that race, but the experience was a springboard to Ted’s own political career and solidified an enduring friendship between the Wilson and Owens families. 

 In 1975, while directing the Salt Lake County Social Services Department, Ted was recruited at age 35 to run for Salt Lake City Mayor.  He knocked on thousands of doors and led a campaign fueled by youth, vigor, and with a priority of simply listening to people. He was elected to three terms and served as mayor from 1976 to 1985. During this time, Jessica and Joey were born.

Ted’s mayoral years marked steady change and progress in Salt Lake City. Recognizing the limits of the commission form of government, he led a successful effort to replace it with a more representative council form. Ted also encouraged more community engagement by working with residents to start a community council program–which took off and still exists today, encouraging citizen involvement and informing elected leaders of neighborhood needs.

As mayor, he prioritized city infrastructure–including sewage treatment and water systems.  He strengthened the city’s role in regional watershed protection.  He established historical and foothill preservation areas and expanded green spaces and parks. With foresight perhaps toward the explosion of Salt Lake City as a recreational mecca, Ted limited vehicle traffic through City Creek Canyon, and opened the popular road to walkers, runners, and cyclists.

He played a critical role in bringing the Western Airlines hub to Salt Lake City, and as a lifelong sports fan, he did the same with the Utah Jazz, helping to bring and keep NBA basketball in our state. 

But Ted is perhaps best known as the mayor who beat back the historic 1983 floods in the capital city. He loved to tell the story of calling on religious leaders–including then-LDS Church First Presidency Member Gordon B. Hinckley–on a Sunday morning and asking to release all members from church to fill and stack sandbags downtown. As Ted told the story, President Hinckley said “Ted, the ox is in the mire,” and thousands of volunteers–many dressed in their Sunday best–showed up to help. The effort still stands as one of the greatest community involvement projects in Utah. People cared. People overlooked their differences and responded to protect the city they loved.

Ted ran an unsuccessful campaign against Republican Senator Orrin Hatch in 1982, even with his good friend Robert Redford campaigning for him. He was soon lured back to his love of teaching and what he often described as his “dream job” when he became the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, serving from 1985 until 2003. Ted mentored thousands of students, guiding them to international, national, and state internships and to careers as judges, elected leaders, journalists, and teachers. Ted proudly built upon the legacies of his earlier mentors and previous Hinckley directors, J.D. Williams and R.J. Snow.

In 1988 Ted took a leave from the Hinckley Institute to challenge Republican incumbent Governor Norman Bangerter and watched his wide lead dwindle when a third-party candidate joined the race. He lost by a slim 11,000 votes.

Ted perfected serial retirement. After leaving the Hinckley Institute at age 64, he became the first executive director of the Tour of Utah bicycle race. He was the first director of the Tanner Humanities Center at the University of Utah. He led the Utah Rivers Council, and was the founding Director of UCAIR (Utah Clean Air Partnership). He continued to evolve, serve, and love his commitments and relationships fostered in later life. Among his key roles was environmental advisor to Governor Gary Herbert, with whom he shares a special bond. They proved that a Democrat and a Republican can get the work of government done.

Ted’s humanitarian and volunteer service included many trips into developing nations and helping with the Utah Tibetan resettlement program with his former wife Kathy. His numerous trips to India to oversee an active internship program and introduce students to the Parliament was a lifelong pursuit. 

Locally, Ted served as a Board of Trustee member of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Friends of Alta. Until his final weeks, he was deeply engaged in climbing access preservation in the Wasatch and had a close association with the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance. He was steadfastly opposed to plans for a Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola to relieve traffic congestion. “More buses or even a reservation system at the resorts would work just fine,” he kept saying. We got it, Ted. We promise to keep fighting.  

Ted valued and protected his time in the outdoors and with friends and family.  He was a passionate distance runner for most of his life, and made time to get in his long runs while leading the city. He relished the last two miles of the annual July 24th Deseret News Marathon, grinding to the end eastward toward Liberty Park while waving to everyone on the parade route.  

Over the years, Ted loved nothing more than meeting up with his lifelong best friend, Rick Reese. Together they did the first climb of the Great White Icicle in Little Cottonwood Canyon. They summited hundreds of peaks together with their adventure-loving friends and family. They found opportunities to meet up whenever they could. They riffed off of each other and reveled in repeating “geezer stories” – as in, “the older we are, the better we were.” Rick passed away in 2022 and Ted missed him dearly. 

Ted’s kids and grandkids were gifted by his guidance. The Wilson kids were encouraged to explore and to embrace independence. Oldest son Ben climbed the Grand Teton with Ted at age 10, and youngest son Joey recently completed a 100-mile endurance trail race. His three daughters accomplished similar feats. All of Ted and Kathy’s children enjoy skiing, camping, running, and celebrating the outdoors and wilderness as a family. These values that Ted instilled–pushing limits and learning through risk and experiences–will always be honored by his progeny. 

While Ted and Kathy’s marriage ended in 2001, they remained close friends until he passed. It is a gift to their children and grandchildren, and a lesson to many about putting family first.

On June 14, 2004, Ted and Holly Mullen married at the Alta Lodge, with the snow-dappled Alf’s High Rustler as backdrop. He became a proud stepfather to her children, Kit Warchol and Sam Warchol.

Ted and Holly were full partners in intellect and adventure. They rode motorcycles together, with Ted encouraging her to lead on the “steeps and windies.” They loved riding their road bicycles up the Wasatch canyons and through national parks. They skied the resorts and backcountry. Ted skied like an angel, and Holly adored following in his magnificent tracks. But their favorite ritual was morning coffee together while reading and discussing the daily news. Ted was a lovely morning person, who woke up content and faced at least 362 days of the year with a smile and hope. Always hope.   

As Ted aged and many offered tributes to his accomplishments, with a twinkle in his eye he would often reply, “I’ve had the cake. Now I’m living on the frosting.” 

His lessons in life were to never sweat the small stuff; take risks; protect our unique mountain and desert environments; focus on family; and  embrace empathy. In an era of political division, he always put relationships first. We will honor him by trying to live those ideals.  

Ted’s survivors include his wife Holly Mullen, Salt Lake City; his brother Larry Wilson (Pauline Wilson), Monroe, Utah; and five children with former wife Kathryn Carling Wilson: Ben Wilson (Michele Mattsson), Salt Lake City; Jenny Wilson (Trell Rohovit), Salt Lake City; Missy Larsen (Sam Larsen), Holladay; Jessica Begum (Gibran Begum), Los Angeles; and Joey Wilson (Shellie Wilson), Centerville. His stepchildren are Kit Warchol (Martin Cooke), Los Angeles; and Sam Warchol (Jaci Warchol), Minneapolis.

Ted’s grandchildren: Abbi Adams (Matthew Adams), Sam Wilson, Tanner Larsen (Brooklyn Larsen), Matthew Wilson, Zach Rohovit, Meg Gordon (Xander Gordon), Max Rohovit, Paige Larsen, Owen Wilson, Cassidy Begum, Josie Begum, Adam Wilson, and Rilan Begum.

And more nieces, nephews, friends, and fans than we can count. Ted had a wide circle of friends and cherished them all. 

Many thanks to the Intermountain Hospice and Home Care team, which lovingly guided Ted and our family on this complex journey. Our special gratitude to Tina Ouzonian, lead nurse; Pearson Frank, social worker; Doug Opp, chaplain; and to Macee and Ernesto, his kind home health aides.

Ted had many favorite nonprofits that help better lives and protect the environment. If you desire, please donate in his name to the Hinckley Institute of Politics; the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance; or Friends of Alta. 

A public celebration of Ted’s life will be held at 10 a.m. on Friday, May 17, at the Rice-Eccles Stadium Tower at the University of Utah, 451 S. 1400 East. Utah Utes attire is welcome!

Our hearts hurt, but we have abundance. Ted would love for you to stop on occasion, breathe, and look at the mountains.