When Maxwell E. Rich was named executive vice president and secretary of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce on August 1, 1964, he confided to reporters that “Two jobs in the service of our state have always appealed to me as the most desirable–the job I am leaving and the one I am taking.”
The job he left was Adjutant General of the Utah National Guard. And he was fully aware of the big shoes he was filling. As he sat in Gus Backman’s upholstered chair in his new office, he said, “Seems awfully big.” Backman served as the Chamber’s chief executive for thirty-four years and left his stamp on programs and policies throughout the state. Now he was moving on as the first president of Pro-Utah, Inc.
Replacing an icon like Backman wasn’t going to be easy, but General Rich and Backman had worked together before. Backman had high praise for him as a close associate and friend over a long period of time. “His proven abilities are well known in the community and the state, indeed the entire Intermountain Region,” said Backman.
General Rich, as he was invariably called by his friends and staffers out of respect, brought with him his own list of accomplishments. He joined the National Guard in 1932 as a private in a horse-drawn artillery battery, received his commission, and rose through the ranks to become a battery commander just before World War II. Called into the Army in March 1941, he continued to advance in rank and responsibility. He was a field artillery commander, fighting in France and Germany, including the Battle of the Bulge. He won the Silver Star for heroism in 1945, and also received the Bronze Star and the French Cross de Guerre. He left active duty at the end of the war as a Lieutenant Colonel.
After the war he remained with the National Guard while working as sales manager with Rocky Mountain Bank Note Co. He became deputy commander of the Guard’s XI Corps Artillery and a full colonel. He finally resigned his civilian job at age 39 to become Utah’s youngest adjutant general in 1953, one of the youngest adjutants in the country.
Ted C. Jacobsen, president of the Chamber’s board that selected Rich, summed it up. “We are most fortunate to have a man of his ability and stature available for this important assignment to follow the wonderful work of Gus Backman.”
He threw himself into the work. On his wall hung a famous assortment of hats that he wore and collected. He was president of Olympics for Utah, Inc. (OUI), which went after the 1972 Winter Olympics. He helped lobby through legislation that authorized the Utah Transit Authority, and then became its president. It operated the Salt Lake area bus lines. He chaired the 1970 Western Governors Conference Committee. He was director of the State Civil Defense Council and president of the Utah Chamber Executives Association.
“Through his direct or indirect influence, he brought professional baseball, basketball, and hockey to Utah,” reported the Deseret News. The basketball team was the Utah Stars, a member of the American Basketball Association.
General Rich relished his role as the Chamber’s spokesman. He once compared the Chamber to a town meeting, where volunteers gathered to discuss areas that needed improvements and to follow up with legislation that would bring those improvements about. “The Chamber of Commerce is a product of society. It changes as society does,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. As examples of the kind of work a Chamber does, The Tribune cited passage of a $5.5 million bond issue to help build the Salt Lake Municipal Airport and a $11.5 million bond issue to renovate the city’s schools.
Beyond that public hat, General Rich worked to improve the Chamber itself. He helped develop what was hoped would be a more permanent home at 19 East 200 South. For many years the Chamber had its headquarters in a cramped office located over the old Walgreen Drug Store on Main Street and Second South (later to be a Penney’s store). It moved for a short time up Main Street into a vacated radio and TV facility.
By contrast, the new offices on Second South were large, modern, and comfortable, and they featured a new Utah Briefing Center. “This is one of the projects that I am most happy about,” General Rich said. He saw it as a tool for industrial and business development activities that could be used by all agencies in the state.
When he was appointed executive vice president, the board also took note of other staff members. E. H. (Biff) Azbill was named industrial commissioner and assistant secretary. Bill D. Backman, the convention bureau manager, was renamed an assistant secretary. Stanford P. Darger was chosen to continue as secretary-manager of the Retail Merchants Association, and Fran E. Deston was renamed Chamber counsel.
It was a strong staff. Darger and Bill Backman would go on to head their own associations when they spun off the Chamber’s activities.
General Rich served the Chamber for six years until resigning in September 1970 to become executive vice president of the National Rifle Association in Washington, D.C. “Max has made a great contribution to the new image of the Chamber of Commerce and a contribution to the community which will be felt for a long time,” said Chamber board president Richard Van Winkle.
General Rich was only 65 when he died on July 21, 1979, in La Jolla, California. At his funeral in Salt Lake City, letters were read from the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, from Maj. Gen. Maurice Watts, representing the entire Utah National Guard, and from Governor Scott Matheson, all praising his work to better the state.
Col. Joe E. Whitesides (Ret.) a member of the Utah House of Representatives, delivered a eulogy and in two sentences paid a heartfelt tribute:
“No one felt they served under General Rich,” he said. “They served with General Rich.”
Sources: Deseret News. 1 August 1953; 1 August 1964; 10 September 1970; 31 December 1970. The Salt Lake Tribune. 22 May 1966; 10 September 1970; 26 July 1979. Salt Lake Business, September 1970; Leonard Arrington and Thomas G. Alexander, “Utah’s First Line of Defense,” Utah Historical Quarterly 33 (Spring 1965): 141-56.