Gus Backman took the helm of The Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club of Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1930, and during the next thirty-four years made it and himself a major influence within the city and the state. Although he purposely tried to avoid the spotlight, by the time he was finished he had earned the title of “Mr. Utah” and was feted throughout its borders and beyond. Few people wielded as much clout for as long as he did.
In part that was probably a function of the times, and in part it was due to his drive and personality. When he became executive secretary, the state was already suffering from a backward economy and was deep in the Great Depression. It was a small state: only 507,847 people lived in Utah, and 28 percent–140,267–lived in Salt Lake City. The people who made key decisions all knew each other, and it was a time when government officials, poorly prepared for the economic disaster they faced, had no hesitation in turning to civic groups like the Chamber for assistance.
“Backman took what in the 1930s was a rather moribund organization that had grown out of the former Salt Lake Commercial Club and made it into an enormously powerful force in Salt Lake City,” wrote historians Thomas G. Alexander and James B. Allen. “At the same time he became an influential figure in Salt Lake and Utah affairs.
Backman joined the Chamber in 1927 as a member and became its treasurer while he was assistant manager at ZCMI. When the Chamber’s secretary left in 1930, Backman was chairman of the committee looking for a replacement. As Backman told the story years later, ZCMI brought in a new manager, who called Backman into his office, and “advised me he was my boss and my salary would be reduced, so that same day I called up Mr. Howard [the Chamber board of governors president] and told him I had found a new Secretary…Mr. Howard asked who it was, and I replied, ‘It’s me.’” He was 38.
It was a fortuitous decision. The Depression hit the state hard, and the number of unemployed grew daily. It was a tough time for the Chamber, too. Backman later paid a moving tribute to Chamber president Harold P. Fabian. “Harold was my first president and he took the Chamber of Commerce through the worst days it ever did experience, and if it hadn’t been for Harold, the Chamber of Commerce, as well as myself, would have broken to pieces.”
Over the next decades the Chamber presidents and Backman were obsessed with creating jobs and finding help for the unemployed. “Our first duty is to bring jobs to Utah,” he said often. It was a task he jumped into with enthusiasm. Later, he confessed that he wouldn’t be able to chronologically outline all that the Chamber did because he was either too busy or too lazy to keep a diary. But the Chamber spread itself far and wide.
It helped set up its own kind of welfare program, organized make-work projects, sought out new businesses, lobbied for civic improvements, and helped bring thousands of new jobs to the state during the military buildup of World War II. Backman himself was director of the Utah Civil Defense for twenty years; he was state coordinator of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) during the Depression, and the first director of the Office of Price Administration (OPA) during the war. As the Chamber’s chief executive, Backman organized and was president of the Bonneville Speedway Association for thirty-five years. The Chamber continued to promote “one of its first loves,” the Salt Lake Municipal Airport, with Backman for many years responsible for presenting briefs on Utah’s behalf before federal agencies. The Chamber helped bring major airlines to the state.
On his watch, the Chamber helped create the Salt Lake Metropolitan Water District and was deeply involved in passage of the Colorado River Storage Project. Backman organized the Utah Legislative Conference, the eight-state Western States Council and the Mountain States Association to bring the eight western states together on important issues. He was the first chairman of the Utah Tourist and Publicity Council. The Chamber organized and ran a number of business-related associations.
All that was enough to make the Chamber a key player in Utah affairs. But a pivotal moment in increasing its influence came from an unlikely direction. When the state organized its 100th anniversary celebration of the coming of the Mormon Pioneers in 1847, David O. McKay, second counselor in the First Presidency and later president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, became its chairman. John F. Fitzpatrick, publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune, was vice chairman, and Gus Backman was executive director. The three met regularly to work out the details. Backman later recalled that what really developed out of the Centennial was the remarkable teamwork between the high church official and the Tribune publisher.
“When the Centennial had ended, I suggested that if we could get along that way with Centennial matters, certainly we could get along that way on matters of interest to the Intermountain area and particularly the State of Utah and Salt Lake City,” recalled Backman. Every Tuesday morning, the three would meet at Lamb’s Grill Cafe on Main Street. Thus they began an extraordinary association in which Backman served as a bridge between the cultures.
“It was of such importance that one day Mr. Fitzpatrick was ill and couldn’t be in attendance at the meeting, so President McKay went up to visit with him at his home. And while we were there our good old friend, Monsignor Pat McGuire, appeared on the scene and looked at President McKay and he said, ‘Oh, poaching on my territory are you?’”
The levity is indicative of the relationship among the three. At the same time, historians agree that the real power in the city lay not in the city commission, but within the Tuesday morning breakfasts of the triumvirate. “The importance of this triad in affecting development and policy in the valley cannot be overstated, though their decisions were informal and largely undocumented,” notes historian Linda Sillitoe. Later, an LDS general authority, a Salt Lake City commissioner and a state senator all individually bemoaned the end of the breakfasts “as the loss of a single group that could ‘consistently get anything done.’”
Big, genial, and energetic, Backman was not afraid to speak his mind. He could tell a 1936 gathering that “Salt Lake City is just a bunch of damned fossils. We need something to wake this city up,” and then outline what he thought needed to be done. When he died at the age of 80 in 1972, it was front page news, and the editorials would say that “no testimonial can be more pertinent or lasting than the one Gus himself helped create,” a testimonial of stone and steel, jobs, and incomes.
Sources: Gus Backman typescript, 1 July 1970, Salt Lake Chamber papers, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah. Linda Sillitoe, A History of Salt Lake County (Salt Lake City, Utah: Utah State Historical Society and Salt Lake County Commission, 1996). Thomas G. Alexander and James B. Allen, Mormons & Gentiles, (Boulder, Colorado: Pruett Publishing Co., 1984). The Salt Lake Tribune, 12 July 1964. Deseret News. 6 June 1963; 15, 16 May 1972