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Ogden • Self-deprecating humor is a tool the portly Terry Schow uses to disarm audiences.

"I'm not tall, thin or smart," is a favorite quip, which he typically follows up with some emphatic statement about his next plan to help Utah's veterans.

There were plenty of laughs and tears Friday as the bearded Schow, 64, reluctantly retired as executive director of the Utah Department of Veterans Affairs, a job he had held since 2001, when it was a division of the Utah National Guard. Gov. Gary Herbert asked Schow to retire last December, as part of Herbert's plan to add an economic development emphasis.

A Vietnam veteran who says he "grew up on the wrong side of Ogden," Schow said he chose the George E. Wahlen Ogden Veterans Nursing Home rather than the Capitol for the event.

"This is where my people are," he said.

Several hundred veterans and those who work with them, as well as top brass from Hill Air Force Base and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Salt Lake City, heard Schow's daughter and others describe his passionate and witty service on behalf of Utah's 165,000 veterans.

They gave him standing ovations — before and after he spoke.

"One need only drive up and down the state to see the legacy Terry has left," said Brian Tarbet, the former adjutant general of the Utah National Guard.

Three new nursing homes — Ogden's and the homes finished this spring in Payson and Ivins — as well as an enlarged and renovated Veterans Cemetery in Bluffdale are Schow's most visible achievements.

Former Gov. Jon Huntsman sent a message that Schow's deputy, Dennis McFall, read.

While praising Schow as "indefatigable and irrepressible," he said Schow's central trait is that he cares far beyond what is expected of a public servant.

"He sees veterans' issues through the eyes of the most humble junior men and women in uniform," wrote Huntsman, who as governor championed Schow's push in 2007 to turn the veterans division into a cabinet-level department.

The funniest moments of the event came when Schow's longtime assistant, Tonja Knight, presented him with a plaque listing some of his colorful sayings, such as, "We're held together by baling wire and bubblegum" and "That dog won't hunt."

Working for veterans. • Schow often talks about growing up on the wrong side of Ogden, but really, he grew up all over the city. His parents were divorced and the family moved so often through his mother's successive marriages that he attended five schools before junior high.

He was an unremarkable student, he said, neither academically nor athletically gifted.

But he was patriotic, and just a few months after graduating Ogden High School in 1967, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, intent on making it into the ranks of the Special Forces.

He was 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 135 pounds, but made it through Jump School and the Special Forces course at Fort Bragg.

"They lowered the standards, as you know," he jokes.

Schow was assigned to the 10th Special Forces group at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. With just a year left on his enlistment, he asked the Pentagon to send him to Vietnam with a buddy.

He spent 10 months in country, working as a radio operator and assigned to a school that trained Special Forces. "Our job was support for people going on missions," he said.

He came home in fall 1970, spent a couple of years working for the federal government in northern Utah, and then reenlisted from 1972 to 1976. He earned an associate degree in police science and a bachelor's degree in sociology while based in Hawaii during that time.

Schow came back to Utah and launched what would turn into a 35-year career with the state. For many years he worked as an investigator for Utah's social and human services.

Early on, he got involved in veterans advocacy and helped push the state to re-create a veterans office in the early 1990s. The department created during World War II had been disbanded in 1978.

Schow shakes his head now over that move, but he has only praise for the strides made since in caring for all veterans, including Vietnam veterans.

His own son did two tours in Afghanistan.

'The veteran, the veterans, the veterans.' • Veterans groups were not happy when Herbert asked Schow to retire early and announced that he wanted to expand the department's mission to include a focus on preserving jobs at Utah's military bases.

The governor's successor for Schow, Gary Harter, is a retired Army colonel who headed up the military cluster in Herbert's Office of Economic Development.

The Senate is expected to consider Harter's appointment in July, Harter said Friday. He has been acting as a military adviser to Herbert since January, but also has been Schow's understudy.

"Other people have described Terry as a living legend, and he is," said Harter, who hopes Schow will continue helping the department in some role.

Schow said that while retirement now was not his choice, he sees some advantages.

"I can speak more freely," he said in an interview. "Sometimes as a retiree you're able to do things without certain folks wanting to put their thumb on you."

He will remain busy.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced on a visit to Salt Lake City earlier in the week that he has appointed Schow as chairman of the VA's Rural Health Advisory Committee. Schow also was elected last weekend as the American Legion's national committeeman for Utah.

"At the end of the day, I certainly want to see the department succeed," Schow said.

But he warned Harter Friday that he'll be watching, "flying cover at 1,000 feet."

"I hope I can use gentle powers of persuasion, but if not, we'll do whatever it takes," said Schow. "My thoughts will be of the veterans, the veterans, the veterans."