Follow the unassuming journey of pilot Jake Garn
By John S. Edwards. Previously published in VALOR, October 2017.
One could make the case that Jake Garn was born to fly. Born in Richfield to a father who was trained to be a World War I fighter pilot and a mother who, according to family lore, took a flight when she was four months pregnant with Jake.
Jake first took control of a plane at age 16. He knew where he was going and anyone who shared his life needed to understand what flying meant to him and that doing it made him an even better person. He flew so high that gravity couldn’t grab him and so low it seemed sometimes the ocean certainly would.
The family moved to Salt Lake City in 1937 where Jake began elementary school. He went on to East High School and then on to the University of Utah, graduating with a business degree, a Naval commission and a ticket to flight school. He married his first wife Hazel who exhibited a resolve of
her own. She was one of the first women in Utah to talk openly about having breast cancer. She became a public advocate for understanding and support in fighting and surviving the disease. But in 1957, she was simply a young ensign’s wife waiting for her husband to return safely from flying missions.
Jake flew reconnaissance in a high-wing seaplane, taking off and landing on water. He covered the entire coast of China from north to south. “I knew it better than I ever knew the East or West coasts of the United States.”
On such missions, Jake and his crew were looking for all manner of activity, including enemy submarines, shipping activity and any sign of troop movements. Often they were approached by Russian fighters that tried to intimidate the crew by flying too close, sometimes almost wing-tip to wing-tip. Jake recalls, “We had no air-to-air guns. But we flew so low and slow the high
performance fighters quickly burned through their fuel trying to match us and had to head for home.”
His most harrowing flight was one from his base in Japan to Wake Island. The plane lost power in both left engines. He told Deseret News Reporter Doug Robinson, “It took two of us to hold
the rudder pedal so we could fly with power on just one side. It was a long straight approach.” And obviously successful.
In 1960 his military obligation was over. He had a big decision, leave the Navy or continue on. By now he and Hazel had two children and he understood what many come to realize — that a military career can sometimes exact a bigger toll on the non-serving spouse. He chose to take an honorable discharge. Returning to Utah he began a career in business.
But thoughts of flying were always there. In 1963 he joined the Utah Air National Guard which was transporting equipment and supplies to Vietnam in the early days of the war. He and his crew would fly to California, pick up a C124 Globemaster, not so affectionately known as “Old Shaky,” and begin the long journey to Vietnam, generally landing at Cam Ranh Bay.
These missions could take 10 days or more. All the time he was holding down a full time civilian job, as do most members of the National Guard.
By the mid-’60s, Garn became involved in grassroots politics, never intending to seek office. But he was nudged into running for the Salt Lake City Commission. He next ran for mayor and won. In 1974 Mayor Garn overwhelmingly was elected to the United States Senate. All this time he was still flying missions for the National Guard.
Amid the triumphs, came tragedy. Barely two years into his term, on a lonely stretch of road near Sunol, Nebraska, disaster struck. Hazel Garn and three of the couple’s children were on their way back to Washington D.C., when her car rolled over and she was killed. The children survived. Garn seriously thought about resigning from his Senate seat and vowed he would never remarry.
According to the Washington Post, the entire nightmare exploded again three years later in a Senate Committee hearing when car safety advocate, Ralph Nader, said, “I suspect, Sen. Garn, that some senator’s personal tragedy might not have occurred if the auto industry had listened to us in the early years.”
After an increasingly hostile back and forth, Garn said, “You know what the first word I got in my office was, Mr. Nader? It was that my wife and children had been killed. You ought to try that kind of shock sometime. So, don’t question my concern for human life.”
At the time of that hearing, Sen. Garn’s life had moved on to a happier place. He had remarried. Kathleen Brewerton was a longtime friend and divorced mother of one. Two more came along and Kathleen found herself orchestrating the lives of seven children while her husband was working from early morning until late night.
That was also when Col. Garn retired from the Air Guard. He was later promoted to rank of brigadier general. Jake still had his small private plane in a hangar in the Salt Lake area and flew it
whenever he could.
Steadily, Sen. Garn was gaining a reputation as a man who could work with anyone to get legislation passed. Dan Wall, minority staff director for the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, said, “He led efforts in Congress to modernize and strengthen the regulation of banks and thrifts.” Working across the aisle with democratic members of the House the controversial Garn-St.Germain Depository Institutions legislation and other bills toughening controls on financial institutions were passed.
The Garn legislative effort that Utah benefits most from guarantees the completion of the Central Utah Project which moves water from northeastern Utah to the Wasatch Front. Many members of Congress were disgruntled at the cost and frankly jealous that Utah was getting such a large chunk of money for the project. They wanted to make yearly budget renewal mandatory. Garn went to work with Utah and national politicians, republicans and democrats alike. The Central Utah Project Completion Act was passed.
On a matter of personal politics, Jake is staunchly pro-life. But when the leader of a pro-life political action group wanted to raise money to target abortion proponents, Garn and fellow Sen. Henry Hyde (R-Ill) resigned from the PAC. Their reasoning was prophetic: “Hit lists are counterproductive because they create irrevocable discord among legislators, any of whom can be subject to a ‘single issue’ attack by one interest group or another.”
Alvina Wall, long-time secretary to Sen. Garn and family friend, recalls how he handled a critical family medical crisis. Daughter Susan had long suffered from juvenile diabetes. In 1986 doctors determined she needed a kidney transplant. “All the family wanted to be tested to see if they were a
match. Jake called them all together and told them he hoped he would be a match. Further, if he and another family member were equally matched, he would be the one to donate.” He was a match.
Wall continued, “That people frequently ask wasn’t that a hard decision?” She says Jake’s response is inevitably, “How could I not give her a kidney? Her mother gave her life the first time; now I could give her life a second time.”
On a global basis Garn is best known for his 1985 flight aboard the space shuttle Discovery — nine days, 2.8 million miles, 110 orbits. Opponents of the payload specialist program used his above-average space sickness during the flight as one of their arguments for trying to abolish the program. Rarely mentioned is the fact that one of his jobs was to aid in the study of space sickness. He was supposed to be ill. Defenders also pointed out that Garn had more military flight hours — 10,000 — than any astronaut in the space program.
Congress voted to name NASA’s primary training complex the Jake Garn Mission Simulator and Training Facility. In 1992 he received one of aviation’s most prestigious awards, The Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy from the National Aeronautics Association for “a lifetime of public service and active participation in all segments of aviation.”
But life as a Senator was wearing thin. Kathleen recalls when their youngest daughter Jennifer pointed to a picture of the U.S. Capitol and said, “Daddy, that’s where you live.”
Jake’s response was that he actually lived with her, but only worked at the Capitol. She was adamant that he actually lived at the Capitol. It was time to think about leaving Washington and returning to Utah. He declined to run for a fourth term.
Today, at 85 years old, Jake says, “My 25 years as a military pilot is my greatest accomplishment in life.”
John S. Edwards serves as the Civilian Aide to the Secretary of Army for Utah. His 30-year career in television news includes stints in Salt Lake City, Portland, OR, and Pittsburgh. He is an alumni of the University of Utah and its Army ROTC program and served in the U.S. Army.
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