On the EDge: SUU, Cedar City lose a friend

Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University, St. George News

OPINION – He was a force to be reckoned with.

Forceful without being strident, a source of unshakeable positivity without the slightest hint of naivete, Gerry Sherratt was, without question, the most vital force in Cedar City history.

His passing on Friday at the age of 84 will be mourned by many, but his accomplishments and influence will be celebrated by those who understand that it is the dreamers – the visionaries – who take us by the hand and usher us into a limitless tomorrow beyond the focus of our myopic eyes.

I knew Gerry very well, from the final years of his Southern Utah University presidency to his service as mayor of Cedar City.

He was scrappy; he was a gentleman.

He had small-town charm and uptown manners.

He was loyal to a fault.

Most importantly – at least in my dealings with him – he was always honest and fair, the ultimate compliment a hard-digging reporter can give to a public figure.

Gerry first came to Southern Utah University in 1949 when it was the tiny Branch Agricultural College. Here he earned his two-year college degree. He went on to earn a master’s degree at Utah State, then a Ph.D. from Michigan State.

He returned to Utah State, where he served as an administrator for 24 years before taking the helm as the president of what had become the relatively tiny Southern Utah State College in Cedar City. SUSC was in trouble. It was struggling with an enrollment of less than 1,800. There was talk of combining it with Dixie College.

When he took the job in 1982, instead of looking out over a rambling, rural college experiencing a bit of an identity crisis, he saw the institution as something more. Much more.

He had a dream.

It took nine years for that dream to become reality, but in 1991, SUSC attained university status, becoming today’s SUU.

He undertook the impossible, going to the community to finance the $1.5-million Centrum Arena, which he saw as the keystone of growth, a focal point for the community. He became a persuasive force, securing funding for 14 new campus buildings from an always strapped Legislature. He created the Utah Summer Games, which has proven to be an economic windfall for the city and, as he saw it, an opportunity to boost the school’s profile.

He was an ardent supporter of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, housed on the campus, understanding that the prestigious theater presentations would further enhance the Southern Utah University brand.

He understood that by raising the school’s athletic teams to NCAA Division I status he could gain an even higher profile for the school.

Oh, yes, he also expanded academic offerings, grew the faculty to ensure a cozy student-to-teacher ratio and demanded increases in student retention and graduation rates.

By the time he was finished, SUU was graduating 1,700 students a year – nearly as many as the total enrollment in the school when he came aboard.

Gerry would have, without a doubt, remained in the job forever, but the state has a mandatory retirement age for college and university presidents. And suddenly, he was gone.

For a little while.

He stayed in town, continued his support for the university and was a fixture at the summer games, Utah Shakespeare Festival presentations, SUU sporting events and, of course, fundraising efforts. His devotion to the school resulted in his name being placed on the university library.

He was also still a go-to guy for governors and the Legislature whenever they needed help with education or economic development committees.

But that wasn’t enough.

Gerry was restless. He felt he wasn’t involved enough and hated the idea of retirement.

I remember when a mutual friend suggested that Gerry might dip a toe into politics.

Knowing Gerry as I did, I doubted he could ever just dip a toe into anything. Expecting something like a run for the Legislature – perhaps even governor – I was surprised when he threw his hat in the ring and ran for mayor, taking on the very popular City Councilman Evan Vickers, who is now a member of the Utah Senate.

Gerry won handily and tackled his new job with equal vigor.

He had more dreams for his hometown and started by diverting his mayoral salary to a special “Mayor’s Fund,” which he used to develop new festivals and special events and assist local arts and cultural organizations that needed a boost.

By the end of his second term, I think he probably ran into the red, dipping into his own pocket to fuel the fund. But that’s how Gerry operated.

He knew the importance of commuter accessibility and anchored the effort for a new airport terminal. He understood the community’s recreational needs and spearheaded development of the aquatic center.

He negotiated special transportation needs for businesses relocating to the area and bristled when local companies were reluctant to pay reasonable wages. He also took an active role in renovation efforts to help Cedar City maintain its small-town charm.

And, of course, he kept a watchful eye over his beloved SUU.

Even into his 70s, he was energetic, with a tireless work ethic.

Unlike so many who live in small towns, he had a much broader vision, a grasp of the bigger picture. He understood how small-town charm could be combined with metropolitan sensibilities in a way that would ensure that visitors would have a reason to return to Cedar City year after year, whether for the Utah Shakespeare Festival plays, the Utah Summer Games competition or the myriad festivals and special events that legitimized Cedar City’s nickname of “Festival City, USA.”

I respected him as a university president and mayor.

Not once did he ever dodge a question, tap dance around an answer or mislead.

He was a straight shooter.

He was incredibly insightful, as most dreamers are.

And he will be missed.

Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

Email: edkociela.mx@gmail.com

Twitter: @STGnews, @EdKociela

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

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