By Sterling Randle
SALT LAKE CITY — As a 21 year-old, Ralph Okerlund moved to Monroe, Sevier County, after receiving degrees from Dixie College and the University of Utah. He thought he would take it easy as a high school teacher for a few years, and live a small-town life — but in the mid 1970s his journey as a public servant started rather unexpectedly, with a favor.
What started as a simple favor to Monroe city leaders, taking a job on the City Council, has turned into a 30-year political career.
“As things started happening [being on the city council] became natural. We started making a few improvements. People appreciated it so we kept trying to do more things,” Okerlund said.
A new park — something that will be there for many years — was the one such improvement. Enlisting help from some people in town he and his wife would rake rocks, at times by hand, from the property.
The next step on Okerlund’s political pathway came upon him, once again, out of the blue when the mayor of Monroe left to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“While I was on the council, my term hadn’t expired yet, the mayor decided to go on a mission. So he and several of the councilmen said you gotta be the mayor.” Okerlund said.
He served as mayor for about six years and decided not to run again.
“For about six months [after I was mayor] I was doing my farm and running my dairy. At the time I had two dairy herds. I was milking 150, which was a lot then,” Okerlund said.
The Sevier County attorney, sheriff and commissioner approached him and said the county commission’s chair was leaving and they’d like him to fill his vacancy. Okerlund agreed, and found himself spending 13 years in the job.
These days, Ralph Okerlund is Senator Okerlund, representing Utah’s 24th Senate District (a mostly rural district that’s roughly the size of New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts combined) and serving as Utah Senate’s Majority Leader.
During the 2014 Legislative session, Okerlund is sponsoring 23 bills, ranging from: changing the state tree; a $1.3 million appropriation to Snow College; and a bill which would fund high school concurrent college enrollment.
“[high school concurrent college enrollment] was really my top priority bill … It’ll allow almost any kid in the state to have an associate’s degree by the time they get out of high school,” Okerlund said.
In 2013, Gov. Gary Herbert was attending an All Terrain Vehicle jamboree in Monroe, when according to Okerlund, local fourth graders asked Herbert why the state tree was the Colorado blue spruce, instead of something unique to Utah — something the governor had wondered in the fourth grade as well.
With the help of then Rep. Spencer Cox, R-Fairview, a movement was started to change the state tree to the Quaking Aspen. While Cox spearheaded the efforts in the House, Okerlund was asked to sponsor the bill in the Senate.
However, before the legislative session started Cox was made lieutenant governor, and Okerlund was asked to take the lead on the state tree change.
“[I wanted to sponsor this bill] because it originated in my hometown. The kids at Monroe Elementary were the ones that started it, but to me it makes sense that we have a tree … that isn’t the state tree in any other states, unlike the Colorado blue spruce,” said Okerlund.
Rep. Jon Cox, R-Ephraim, met Okerlund when Cox was a Sanpete County Commissioner. Together they now serve on the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee.
“Ralph [Okerlund] is a very thoughtful and intelligent individual … You’ll find people in the legislator who are very vocal. Who speak about every issue that comes before us,” Jon Cox said. “Ralph is not one of those people. When he speaks, people listen to him. He’s a very respected member of not just the Senate, but also of the House.”
Okerlund attributes this thoughtfulness to his rural roots.
“Growing up in a rural town there isn’t a whole ton of people. You have to respect everyone’s view, even if they don’t agree with you,” Okerlund said. “As long as you have good people to work with, you’re willing to work hard, [and] you’re willing to accept the things that you can’t change. [Those] are the most important lessons I’ve learned from the beginning,”
The biggest challenge Okerlund said he faces is making sure he meets with all his constituents, mayors and other government officials in over 80 communities that stretch for nearly 300 miles from Elberta, in Utah County, all the way down to Kanab, in Kane County.
“Travel is a big part. When we were campaigning we had 10 [county] conventions to go to. A [senator] in Salt Lake or Provo would only have one,” Okerlund said.
Rep. Jon Cox said that despite the large geographic area Okerlund covers, that he still represents the people.
“If you contact [senator Okerlund] he’ll give you the time of day and talk to you. If you ask people anywhere in his district what they think of him they’ll say they love him,” Jon Cox said.
Okerlund said he tries to look to the future with a steady mind.
“Keep at it. Don’t get disillusioned. Don’t let the fact that you can’t change the world over night stop you from changing what you can,” said Okerlund. “Over the course of time you work on a lot of projects. Not all of them end up being what you hoped their going to be, but if you keep working at it you’ll get there.”