Howard C. Nielson died of natural causes on Wednesday morning, May 20. He was living in South Carolina with his daughter Mary Lee Jackson, who was holding his hand when he passed away peacefully, to be reunited with his childhood sweetheart and wife, Julia (Julie) Adams Nielson, who passed away 17 years earlier. Howard was also preceded in death by his second wife, Donna Brown Nielson, who died in 2015. A teacher, public servant, consultant, numbers whiz, friend and neighbor, Howard was known and loved by more than any of us could ever count.
Howard met Julie, his future wife when they were both in elementary school in Richfield, Utah. They spent a great deal of time together until her family moved. Howard and Julie met again briefly in Fresno, California just before he shipped out to the Pacific theater. Building on their storybook friendship, the two were married a little less than three years after the war ended. Together, Howard and Julie raised four daughters and three sons. Ultimately, they would have 39 grandchildren. Their posterity now numbers more than 120.
To his friends and family in Richfield, to his colleagues in Provo, and to his political collaborators in our Utah and U.S. Capitols, Howard was known as a gentleman, as a friend and mentor, as a statesman, and as one of the good guys. As a young man, Howard was a hard-working Richfield, Utah farm boy, a standout high school debater, and the walk-on winner of the 64-dollar question on “Take It or Leave It.” He is a veteran of World War II and the holder of four university degrees. Howard founded the BYU Statistics Department and was a perennial favorite of students there for 25 years. During this time, he spent a year in Amman as economic advisor to the Kingdom of Jordan, and for two years he was Utah’s Associate Commissioner of Higher Education. Howard’s 20-year tenure as a lawmaker included service as Utah Speaker of the House and four terms In the U.S. Congress. To cap it off, Howard won election and served a four-year Utah Senate term.
It was eight years into his service in Washington, as Howard was moving up the ranks in his party and the Energy and Commerce Committee, that he announced his retirement. He and Julie went on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Due to the war, Howard had not been a missionary as a young man, but he had promised Julie they’d go together one day. They ended up serving two missions.
Howard always read the newspaper, perhaps as much for the crossword puzzle as for the knowledge of national and world events. Knowing what was happening in the world was one-way Howard perfected the art of being the best prepared for any meeting he entered. Adding to this preparation, he was the original fact-checker. As such, in his first congressional primary election, he positioned colleagues around the state to feed him data, and he kept his own tally of election returns. Howard’s count was so much more complete than what the media had, they started reporting his numbers. Howard also loved to see firsthand the places he read about. From road trips across the country to congressional fact-finding missions, from political national committee meetings to Caribbean cruises with family, and from professional assignments overseas to missions in Australia and then Hungary, Howard relished the cultures he encountered. And he treated everyone—from remote island residents to heads of state—with the same respect and kindness.
Despite everything going on in Howard’s professional life, he always took time for family and friends. He loved working, playing games, and learning about people. A Richfield acquaintance told of Howard, upon returning to Richfield after his military service, going out of his way and crossing the street to greet her and ask about her family. A former campaign manager told how, at the end of the day, he left a stack of dozens of campaign letters for Howard to sign personally before they were to be mailed. When the manager returned in the morning, the letters had all been signed, and each had a hand-written personal note about something going on in the life of the recipient. “I hope your daughter is doing well at Utah State. She is such a charming young woman.” That sort of thing. Connecting on a personal level like this was Howard’s way; everyone was important to him.
Howard was preceded in death by wife Julie and his parents, Tayler and Zula Nielson, of Richfield, and by all of his siblings, Ross Nielson, Edith Tuft, Alta Hunt, Ruth Harvey, and Joseph Nielson. He is survived by his seven children, Noreen Astin (Steve), Elaine Taylor (Stan), John (Louise), Mary Lee Jackson (Paul), Jim (Marilyn), Jean Cundick (Clay), and Howard, Jr. (Mariko).
Family members will hold a private graveside service in Richfield where Howard’s body will be interred. They will hold a larger memorial service when such gatherings are advisable. In lieu of flowers or other remembrances, his family encourages you to join them in celebrating Howard’s life in the small ways his time on earth embodied: find someone to reach out to help, seek a way to serve in the community, or take a minute to learn something about another’s life. That is what would have meant the most to him.
Arrangements entrusted to Walker Sanderson Funeral Home. Condolences may be offered to the family at www.walkersanderson.com.