Vol. 15 No. 1
Summer 2005

by Jason Matthew Smith - photo by Skip Schmiett

Vice President for Development J. Michael Mattsson bids adieu to the U after four decades of dedicated service.

He was once awed by the veterans, the old-timers who had been at the U for what seemed like an impossibly long time. “I used to see professors getting awards for longevity, and I thought, ‘How could anyone stay that long?’ But here I am.”

Yup, here he is—Vice President for Development J. Michael Mattsson BS’60, no longer surprised by those who rack up 20 or 30 years of service. He’s now rounding out 40 years at the U, and longevity doesn’t seem so bewildering.

Today, his arm is in a sling from a rotator cuff injury, accomplished by hurling a bag of construction trash into a garbage bin at his new cabin in the Fish Lake Mountains of central Utah. But that’s Mike Mattsson: Do nothing halfway, apply equal parts gusto and gravitas. Even when cleaning up around the cabin.

For four decades, and more than half a dozen U of U presidents, he’s been the go-to guy for fund-raising. He’ll step down from the vice presidency in June 2005 after establishing the University as 19th in the nation for fund-raising prowess, taking in about $130 million a year. Under Mattsson’s wing the U has forged some of its most beneficial relationships with alumni and donors, with names like Eccles, Marriott, and Moran.

And it almost didn’t happen.

Back in the early ’60s, Mattsson worked in the student affairs office for a time after he left the Army, but thought the grass might be greener on the corporate side of the employment fence. So he left the U, taking a job with Terracor. But while driving to his first day of work, he knew something was terribly wrong—he should’ve been heading toward the U. “I thought to myself, ‘Oh, I’ve made a big mistake,’” he says. A couple of years later he applied for a job with the development office of what was then known as the Medical Center. “I was up against two individuals—one had fund-raising experience; the other had an outgoing personality. I had neither,” he says. But he got the fund-raising job, seized it with both fists and didn’t let go. In 1972 he was named executive director of development and community relations, a position that eventually became vice president for development.

Five minutes into a conversation with Mattsson, you’re aware that he deeply loves the U, and he’s infecting you with that passion until you’re ready to rise and rattle the Park Building’s windows with a rendition of “Utah Man.”

Look around, and you’ll see the campus that Mike helped to build: the Alumni House, business school, health sciences—every corner occupied by something earned from Mattsson’s talent for selling the University to potential donors. Mattsson’s successes, however, don’t just come from his ability to market the U. He’s good at that—with his mellifluous voice and a knack for tossing out the right quote at the right time—but he’s stayed in it for philosophical reasons. “We’re selling an idea—and you have to inspire people,” he says. What he means by selling an idea is promoting the University as an investment. Not like the stock market—the U is better, providing “unlimited
benefits to the soul,” as he puts it.

Five minutes into a conversation with Mattsson, you’re aware that he deeply loves the U, and he’s infecting you with that passion until you’re ready to rise and rattle the Park Building’s windows with a rendition of “Utah Man.”

It’s not an act with Mattsson. He is Utah pride incarnate, because his life has always been intertwined with the University.

When he was a kid, Mattsson’s family made pilgrimages from central Utah to Kingsbury Hall to attend performances. The elder Mattsson, a rural lawyer who served on the Board of Regents, urged his children to get their education at the U. Sure, they could elect to go somewhere else—but he wouldn’t pay for it.

Toni Lehtinen BA’74 has worked in the development office with Mattsson for 30 years, and credits Mattsson’s success to his humor—and a lifelong immersion in the institution. “The University has always been part of his life,” she says. “He lives it. He knows the big picture, and has a great sense of the University—and that’s because it’s important to him.”

That kind of familiarity paid off when University presidents called on Mattsson to drum up support for the U. “Like any pioneer and leader, he exercised his own talents both publicly and quietly,” says former President Chase Peterson. “And he was a joy to work with.”

Yet Mattsson’s influence reaches beyond the University’s accounting ledger—he’s also mentored a generation of college administrators, among them Snow College’s Mike Benson. Benson’s first higher-ed job, shortly after receiving his Ph.D., was as major gifts officer under Mattsson. “I owe my career in higher education to Mike,” Benson says. “And a lot of the management techniques I try to employ at Snow I learned from him.”

Now Mattsson will have more time for the grandkids, and for Walter, the West Highland terrier whose white face peers out from photos in his office. But he won’t totally disappear from campus: Mattsson will consult with administrators on the next capital campaign.

“There’s a saying, by Napoleon,” Mattsson says. “‘The great art of governing consists in not letting men grow old in their jobs.’” He pauses for a moment, looks down, and taps his desk. “An exit is important. My time has come.”

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