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It was the kind of partisan shouting match Norma Matheson hates.

She was filling in for her husband, Gov. Scott Matheson, at an appearance at Brigham Young University during his 1980 bid for re-election. The walls of the room were covered in Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert Wright's posters. And despite the rules for the debate, Wright launched into a rhetorical rant about the governor.

Matheson asked the student moderator to read the letter outlining a purely issue-driven forum. The crowd of students started shouting at her. Then their professors started yelling at them to stop. And the gathering disintegrated from there.

On her way out, Matheson passed her uncle, a BYU professor, who had tears in his eyes. And she lost it. Reporters said the governor's wife left in tears. And that report is perhaps more galling to Matheson than her unwitting role in the display of bad manners.

She laughs about the memory today. "By the time we got back to the mansion, it was filled with flowers from BYU alumni. It looked like someone had died," Matheson says.

Still, some speculate the ugliness of that 1980 campaign is what led to the two-term Democratic governor's decision not to run for re-election four years later. The Mathesons were old school. Civility was their rule. And civility seemed to have disappeared.

That polite version of politics still guides Norma Matheson, the unofficial matriarch - though she doesn't like the term - of the Democratic Party. Her political involvement is so mannerly, she borders on the nonpartisan. It's a deliberate choice.

"I hate polarization," she says. "There's too many things people have in common to not be able to respect each other and have tolerance. We're all in this together."

Sure, she sometimes stands in for her two sons - Jim is running for Congress and Scott Jr. is running for his father's former office. Matheson quietly serves on boards of the Children's Museum Advisory Board to the Alliance for Unity. And she walks neighborhoods with young candidates for the state Legislature. Don't assume she isn't passionate about who should be elected this year. But none of her significant influence descends into the political brawling that has become so common.

"She floats above it all," says former Democratic Congresswoman Karen Shepherd. "She's one of those people you listen carefully to. She doesn't overtalk. And when she talks, you listen."

Such accolades embarrass Matheson. She prefers to be incognito, behind the scenes. That's kind of how she approached politics the first time - reluctantly.

The daughter of a country doctor, 75-year-old Matheson grew up in Nephi. The family moved to Philadelphia and San Francisco when her father went back to medical school to become an obstetrician-gynecologist. Matheson returned to Utah as a teenager and met her husband at East High School. They married in 1951 when Scott Matheson was finishing law school at Stanford. The couple moved back to Utah and built a house in the Salt Lake City foothills next door to her parents. Scott Jr. was born in 1953. Daughter Lu, son Jim and son Tom followed.

Jim Matheson still remembers his mom's tuna casserole fondly. Dinner was a teaching opportunity. She was Cub Scout den mother, in the PTA, organized Little League tennis, was president of the League of Women Voters. Her husband called her the best political mind in the family. Her sons say they learned the family ethic of "public service" at her hand.

"She led by example," Jim Matheson says.

Then her husband said he wanted to run for governor.

"I was the last one to give the thumbs up on that," she says. "I didn't know how gratifying it could be. I knew it could be the experience of a lifetime."

During her eight years as first lady, Matheson tackled aging issues, health care and the purchase and first restoration of the governor's mansion on South Temple.

"She wasn't looking to be a governor's wife," says college friend Janine Rokich, "but she rose to the occasion and then some."

Matheson also helped organize the controversial International Women's Year conference in 1977. She was out of the country for Scott Jr.'s graduation from Oxford when it disintegrated into a vicious battle over the Equal Rights Amendment and "lesbian rights." Again, another display of the ugly side of politics she laments.

Six years after he left office, Scott Sr. was diagnosed with multiple melanoma and died suddenly in 1990. His wife picked up his commitment to conservation and continued advocacy of her own projects. She works on the Utah Humanities Council, the University of Utah College of Nursing Development Committee and the Nature Conservancy.

"Her schedule," son Scott Jr. says, "would wear out just about anyone."

Nature Conservancy Director Dave Livermore says Matheson is tireless in her efforts to preserve Utah's wetlands. "She has a deep commitment and passion for preservation of the natural world," he says.

Her avocation has become her retreat. She bird-watches at the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve to relieve stress. Her lush backyard garden is just about where she wants it. She organizes monthly lunches of her college friends and picks up grandson William at school.

"This is my life," she says, running a fond hand over the small bronze statue in her front hall - a replica of the larger-than-life version of her husband that stands in the rotunda of the Matheson Courthouse.