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Eagle Mountain legend John Walden’s heart was in the right place

By Karissa Neely daily Herald - | Jan 29, 2017
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Eagle Mountain co-founder John Walden.

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Eagle Mountain co-founder John Walden.

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Eagle Mountain co-founder John Walden.

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Eagle Mountain co-founder John Walden.

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Eagle Mountain co-founder John Walden.

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Eagle Mountain co-founder John Walden.

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John Walden, founder of Eagle Mountain city, overlooks the valley from Walden Point where he first envisioned the city. Photo by Donna Milakovich 

With thousands of crucial yet everyday people comprising the Utah Valley community, the Daily Herald would like to further highlight and share the real stories and impact of those who have recently departed. “A bit more of the story” reflects those efforts and remembers those lives.

John Walden’s name has often been mentioned negatively in local news media outlets, including the Daily Herald. But to hear his family and friends tell it, his heart was always in the right place.

Walden, 68, died Jan. 14 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Walden was one of the original co-founders who created Eagle Mountain in 1996, and was recognized in December at a special anniversary celebration for his role in the city’s inception. Since that time, his relationship with Eagle Mountain was often a rocky one.

Walden started out as a farm boy in Kansas. He put himself through school, earning a business degree. He moved to Florida, where he originally went into the insurance business. Friends and colleagues say he had a very keen business mind, and he soon was buying and selling properties, developing surgical centers, and developing land and subdivisions.

According to his longtime business partner, Dr. Andrew Zorbis, Walden was very successful in Florida. The two first teamed up on a surgical center, and then continued their partnership in other developments.

“John was the kind of person who could be successful and make money in anything he did,” Zorbis said.

Even while a young girl, his daughter, Tiffany Walden, remembers his drive. She said he was a dedicated single father, raising her and her brother on his own. She laughed as she recalled playing Monopoly with him.

“He taught us everything, and he’d let us win at everything, but not Monopoly. He’d destroy us,” she said chuckling.

John Walden had a big personality, and Tiffany recalls how he lit up a room whenever he entered. She also recalls his amazing sense of humor — though a lot of his jokes were “very inappropriate,” she said.

Being a self-made man, John Walden also didn’t like those he felt were the “snooty” rich, Tiffany shared. He lived frugally, shopping at Wal-Mart and residing in a plain home. He was always himself, even to the point of entering prestigious Florida yacht clubs wearing his regular outfit of board shorts and flip-flops — with the obligatory required sport coat, of course.

“He didn’t like snooty. He liked normal, liked to cut up with the working man. He felt it was his job to make the snooty uncomfortable,” Tiffany said.

He did have a sweet tooth for expensive cars, though, and Tiffany might be one of the few locals who did her driver’s test as a 16-year-old in a black Maserati.

“Now I might inherit a few fancy cars, but I don’t even know how to start them,” she said laughing.

Those that knew him best say John never cared about what others thought of him, being true to his beliefs, his family and friends. Of course, this type of personality could and often did rub others the wrong way — especially in those early days of Eagle Mountain.

“He enjoyed stirring the pot, doing things different, sharing his opinion, because he truly saw things differently. He was very happy, enthusiastic, and at times demanding, because he had a vision. He knew what he was talking about, and he genuinely cared about the direction the city was going,” Diane Bradshaw said. Bradshaw was one of the original families to settle Eagle Mountain in 1996. She was on the first City Council there and was a city employee for a few years as well.

Walden loved to ski, so while living in Florida, he often brought his son and daughter out to Park City to ski. They all enjoyed Utah so much, Walden bought a home. When he found a number of acres for sale west of Lehi, he set out to purchase the land.

“He noticed the property, and true story, he called me and said, ‘Andy, send me $1.1 million,'” Zorbis said. “I sent him the money, and when I saw him a few weeks later, I said, ‘So what did we buy?'”

Walden and Zorbis originally valued the water rights to the sagebrush-strewn land, but Walden quickly began to see something different. What he saw was the city of Eagle Mountain. He was instrumental in investing in the early roads, utilities and infrastructure to get the city on its feet, according to Ifo Pili, current city administrator.

“He saw it as something new, something bold, something innovative. He was trying to do something different in Eagle Mountain,” Bradshaw said.

In Eagle Mountain, Walden envisioned a town that had everything from a hospital to an airport, to a university to a cemetery. Walden wanted the city’s residents to be able to live their whole lives in the town — from birth to death. To that end, Tiffany said he donated land for the city’s rodeo ground, for city hall, for church buildings and the city’s cemetery.

“My father was a visionary. He wanted to create a city here. Standing on that hill with only the empty land, he saw where the roads were going to go. He saw where the subdivisions would go. He saw where Wal-Mart would go. He wanted to create a home for people,” Tiffany said.

Friends and family share that John Walden was fiercely a family man, and that drove his decisions about Eagle Mountain. Tiffany has lived in the town for 13 years, and plans to stay for many, many years to come.

“He loved his family, and he wanted to make sure his daughter had a good place to live,” said Angie Ferre. Ferre herself is a long-time Eagle Mountain resident, and worked for the city for 14 years before joining John’s firm.

Pili said Walden always had good intentions for the city, and was often misunderstood. Family is what motivated him to push for the state’s prison relocation to Eagle Mountain — a decision that made him very, very unpopular.

“He came from a good place on the prison. We have in our family, struggles with drugs and certain things. With the prison, he told me that everybody deserves a second chance. He wanted to help rehabilitate people who were struggling,” Tiffany said, explaining that her father envisioned using land adjacent to the new prison as a manufacturing training facility for prisoners, so they would be employable upon release.

Those that knew and loved him best, wish others had the chance to see the real man behind all the bluster.

“If you really didn’t like John Walden, you really didn’t know him. Anyone who really knew John Walden, there was no way to hate him,” Ferre said.

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