Wharton: Retired journalist helped improve Sugar House Park

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In my more than 42 years as an employee of The Salt Lake Tribune, few colleagues commanded the overall respect that Lex Hemphill earned.

Whether working as a sportswriter, columnist, Olympics reporter or editorial writer, Lex earned our admiration as a journalist who spent hours studying and researching facts before putting anything on paper. We knew that his stories would always be exhaustively researched.

When he and his wife, drama critic Nancy Melich, left the paper shortly after the 2002 Olympics, many wondered where they might take their many talents.

Nancy kept active in drama, spending most summers helping theater enthusiasts attending the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City learn more about the plays they were attending.

Lex took his passion for Sugar House Park, a place near his home where he regularly walks, to a position on its Park Authority Board. He eventually would serve as president.

He ended eight years of service on that board last spring. In talking about his time there, he emphasized that he no longer spoke for the Park Authority because he had left office.

I had a personal interest in Lex's work. Not only did I consider him a good friend, but he took the spot on the board held by my late wife, Gayen, shortly after she passed. I was familiar with many of the issues that would engage him.

But, as a journalist myself, I wondered how Lex would make the transition from objective writer to board member.

"Working on a newspaper, you don't engage in jobs like this," Hemphill said. "You really can't. Because of conflict-of-interest equations, you can't get involved in public service."

Lex, who still serves as the media representative on the far more controversial State Records Committee, said that after 25 years working as a journalist, he had a pent-up desire to serve. And he thinks his professional experience helped him.

"It takes some objectivity to do the job," he said. "We dealt with a lot of different constituencies. One of the things I could bring to it was to listen to both sides. I thought we accomplished as much as we could in my time on the board. I always felt like an advocate for the park. … When you get out of that objective newspaper business, now you can act on the passion you feel for [the park]."

Many probably don't know the history of Sugar House Park.

It is on the site of the old state prison, which moved to its present location at the Point of the Mountain in 1951. The state of Utah sold the land jointly to Salt Lake City and County. When it came time to develop the park, city and county leaders formed a third entity, the Sugar House Park Authority, and signed a 99-year agreement for the nonprofit organization to operate it. Harold Fabian, a noted Utah lawyer who was instrumental in helping the Rockefeller family acquire land that would become Grand Teton National Park, was its first president.

The city and county committed to pay operations and maintenance costs for the park.

"The downside is that more than 50 years into the park's history, things started to deteriorate," Lex said. "The physical structures, built in the '50s and '60s, are now 40 and 50 years old. That assessment from the city and county is for the daily operation and not for infrastructure updates or capital improvements."

Thus, money must be found for upgrades to basic facilities such as three restrooms and seven pavilions as well as roads and other facilities.

There were numerous other issues, such as where and how the Parleys Trail and Sego Lily Plaza would use Sugar House Park; the relationship with adjacent Highland High School, which uses some park land for athletic facilities; new park benches; a master plan; a website; new signs; a road marked for pedestrians and bicycles; and an annual July Fourth fireworks show.

Under Lex's leadership, the Park Authority decided to no longer pay for the fireworks, a controversial decision at the time that resulted in private funding for the big summer holiday event. The authority decided its primary responsibility was to take care of the park and not spend its limited resources on a one-night party.

"You look back and think that you only take little steps," Lex said. "You do what you can to try to make it better."

For those of us who love Sugar House Park, the hard work of Lex and many volunteers like him have helped keep it a quiet open-space gem in an increasingly bustling urban area.


Twitter: @tribtomwharton