Joseph Bracken Lee

Dennis L. Lythgoe
Utah History Encyclopedia, 1994

J. Bracken Lee, governor of Utah and Mayor of SLC

In a vigorous defense of his fiscal conservatism as governor of Utah, J. Bracken Lee once advised, “Do it honestly, do the best you know how, and let ’em holler!” That statement accurately portrays not only his forceful personality but also the philosophy of government that made him one of the few genuine mavericks in American political history.

J. Bracken Lee was born in Price, Utah, on 7 January 1899, a son of Arthur and Ida May Leiter Lee. Although Lee’s ancestors on both sides were active in the Mormon Church, his father was not, and Lee also never belonged to the church.

The Lee family moved to Fruita, Colorado, when Lee was five years old. He attended school there, completing the eighth grade before the family returned to Price. Lee attended Carbon County High School but did not graduate; instead, two months prior to graduation, he enlisted in the army when World War I broke out in April 1917. He served until March 1919, emerging with the rank of sergeant. After leaving the service, he worked for several months as a postal clerk before joining his father in the insurance and real estate business, eventually becoming manager and owner of the agency.

In 1920 he married Nellie Pace, and they had a daughter, Helen. After two years of marriage his wife became seriously ill with pneumonia, then with Hodgkin’s disease, which took her life in 1926. In 1928 Lee married Margaret Draper from Wellington, Utah, and they became parents of three children, a daughter, Jon, and sons James and Richard.

In addition to managing his insurance business, Lee became a registered Republican, a 32nd-degree Mason, an Elk, and a Legionnaire. By 1931 he had become so involved in Price politics that he ran for mayor; however, he was swamped. He ran again in 1935, winning by two votes. He was elected to five additional two-year terms for a total of twelve years in office.

Lee unsuccessfully sought the governorship of Utah in 1940 and 1944; in 1948, however, he was elected, defeating Governor Herbert B. Maw. From his earliest days in politics, Lee was charismatic, independent, supremely self-confident, and candid. He became arguably the most colorful and controversial politician in Utah history, and had perhaps a greater impact on the state and nation than any Utah figure since Brigham Young.

Lee served two terms as governor (1949-57), three terms as mayor of Salt Lake City (1960-72), and seemed to be a perennial candidate for governor and senator as well as a forceful spokesman for conservatism. He was one of the few Utah governors to be nationally known, especially for his fiscal conservatism and his vociferous opposition to income tax, foreign aid, and the United Nations. His candor and gift for self-expression were immediately reminiscent of Harry S Truman. Due to a penchant for invective and personal confrontation, Lee probably made more enemies than any other Utah politician.

Although his record as mayor of Price was somewhat controversial, as governor he gained immediate respectability for his emphasis on integrity and economy. His principal target for economy was education, however, and he soon made an enemy of almost every educator in the state. On balance, his healthy relationship with the Mormon Church saved him in large part from the educators’ wrath.

Without question, Lee made his greatest contribution as mayor of Salt Lake City. His political maturity generally served the city well during his twelve years, which were known for fiscal stability and capital improvements. Even though his principles remained constant, he was more temperate in his approach and thus was more effective during his final years in office.

See: Dennis L. Lythgoe, Let ‘Em Holler: A Political Biography of J. Bracken Lee (1982).