It was — even for those of us who didn’t know him all that well — nothing short of a gut punch.
In fact, those are the exact same words two of us in the Standard-Examiner newsroom, independent of one another, used to describe our feelings upon hearing news of the death of Brent Taylor, the North Ogden mayor and Utah Army National Guard major who was killed in Afghanistan on Nov. 3.
Fellow Standard-Examiner journalist Mitch Shaw had interviewed Taylor countless times for stories. He’d always spoken highly of the man. So when news of Taylor’s death broke on that Saturday afternoon, I called Mitch. He said he’d just gotten home and heard the news from his wife.
“I told her it felt like a gut punch,” Mitch said.
It was the precise phrase I’d used with my wife not 30 minutes earlier to describe my feeling upon hearing the news. A gut punch — an overwhelmingly sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach that just wouldn’t go away.
Although I had only interviewed Taylor a couple of times, the mayor and I found ourselves crossing one another’s orbits on occasion. And while it may have seemed like we never agreed on anything, we were never — ever — disagreeable about it.
I first encountered Brent Taylor back in 2013 when he was running for mayor of North Ogden. His opponent had questioned Taylor’s military record as well as his business dealings, and the exchange had gotten quite testy. Some heated emails were leaked to the press, and I wrote a column titled “Somebody in North Ogden needs to take a nap or a time out,” slapping them both pretty hard for their behavior.
The next day I received an email from Taylor.
What stood out to me — and I still have that exchange — was the way he began his email: “Good morning,” Taylor wrote. “How are you? I hope you had a nice weekend.”
Nobody, especially when they’re about to complain about one of my goofy columns, takes the time to ask me how I’m doing and express the hope that I had a good weekend. And his was a genuine, sincere inquiry.
The man who would be mayor then went on to explain — calmly, rationally and politely — that he felt my commentary had been unfair to him.
To this day, it’s still the nicest “hate mail” I’ve ever received, which is probably why I kept it.
Three years later, Taylor — now mayor of North Ogden — again contacted me about a column with which he disagreed. I’d just written an opinion piece headlined “Of drunken angels and unicorns: North Ogden library renovation killed,” which took North Ogden, Harrisville and Pleasant View to task for trying to parlay a $5 million renovation to the North Ogden branch of the Weber County Library into a vastly more expensive, brand-spankin’-new facility.
Taylor asked to meet to discuss what he believed was my unfair characterization of what was going on with the library fight. And so, on a rainy spring day in 2016, he and I met for lunch at the Chinese restaurant there in North Ogden. We had a frank, honest and far-ranging discussion about libraries and communities and politics and journalism.
An hour later we still disagreed — although he gave me some things to ponder and I like to think I did the same for him.
I walked away from that lunch with a strong impression of Brent Taylor: He was one of those rare, principled politicians who says what he means, genuinely has the best interests of his constituents at heart, and keeps a civil tongue even in the heat of a passionate argument.
The following year, in March 2017, Mayor Taylor and I had our final run-in. I’d written a story about the then-mayor of Pleasant View violating one of his city’s zoning ordinances. In the comments at the bottom of the online story, Taylor came to his fellow mayor’s defense — accusing me of “fake news” and “gotcha” journalism and insisting it wasn’t a story. Again, while he and I came at the world from two entirely different perspectives, we remained professional and respectful in our disagreements.
Come to think of it, Mayor Taylor and I didn’t agree on a whole lot in the five years we’d known each other.
As I look back on those interactions, it’s refreshing to see a journalist and politician who could both do their jobs and still have mutual respect for one another. For reporters, there’s a fine line between not shying away from asking the hard questions in their role as government watchdog and becoming combative and disrespectful with a source. And for politicians, it’s an equally fine line between insisting reporters are held to the high standard of “getting it right” and calling them losers. Or stupid. Or enemies of the people.
Brent Taylor was one of the good politicians. You could disagree with his politics, but his integrity, his motives and his heart were unimpeachable.
As a mayor, the man was all about serving the people of his city. As a major, he applied that same passion to serving the people of his country. He paid the ultimate price for that service and in doing so has earned my undying gratitude and respect.
I still get that cold feeling in my gut when I think about Taylor’s death. But it’s gradually being replaced with a warmer feeling a bit higher — in my chest — when I think about his life.
He will be missed.