Cal Black

Remarkable life from humble start


by Buckley Jensen

The story is told of the member of an Indian tribe trying to describe to a friend the kind of man their chief was. The best explanation he could give was, “he makes many, many, many tracks.” That analogy will be more meaningful when you finish what follows:

Cal Black arrived in Blanding on March 17, 1929, the third child of Hyrum and Hester Black. He lived his entire life in Blanding. He made contributions to his city, county and country which, today, amaze anyone who takes the time to examine his remarkable life.

Because his family had limited financial means, Calvin learned to work early. At age 11, he got his first paying job. While in high school he worked for Platte Lyman in the hay fields, which was some of the heaviest and dirtiest work anywhere.

One day Platte was asked if “that Black kid” was worth his pay. Platte’s reply: “That is no kid. That is the best hired-man I have ever had. He does a man’s work and he does it as well and as fast as anyone who has ever worked for me. I wish I could always hire men of his quality.”

Calvin never went to college because there simply wasn’t the money to do so. Right out of high school he and his father bought a little truck and the Whirlwind uranium claims 110 miles from Blanding. They had to build part of the road themselves, and the road was so rough it took 22 hours to make one round trip from Blanding to the mine. Part of the road crossed the Navajo Reservation and, at that time, the Indians were not happy about miners trespassing. Several miners simply disappeared and that aspect of the venture was a constant worry.

The claims were 80 feet up a sheer cliff face. Cal had to build ladders to climb to the ore outcropping and then hang on by fingernails while they drilled a hole into the cliff face from which they could mine the ore. Ore was thrown down the cliff face one shovel at a time and then loaded in the truck by shovel.

Add to that the breakdowns, mud, freezing weather, loneliness and low prices for their ore, and there was an obstacle pile which would have broken most men. In this venture, Calvin learned lessons in determination, know how and sheer grit to prepare him for the thousands of tough challenges that lay in his future.

Later in life, Cal said, “One of the most vivid memories of my life was watching my mother and father continually sacrifice and go without so that I and my six siblings had the things we wanted. I’m afraid I will have to confess that perhaps the most overpowering drive I have is to continually drive myself so I won’t have to face what I felt so strongly were Mom and Dad’s sacrifices.”

And that drive and determination, along with working 14-16 hours a day for most of his life, delivered him from the poverty he had known as a youth to one of the great financial successes in San Juan County history.

Space simply will not allow a list all of his business ventures. Suffice it to say that the Gateway Motel, the Elk Ridge Restaurant, the San Juan Mortuary, the Gateway Service Station and Radio Station KUTA, all in Blanding, were only a small portion of his empire. Where he really excelled was in the Lake Powell Ferry Service, uranium properties, sale of uranium ore, and buying and selling land and real estate all over the western states.

Cal chaffed at the isolation of Blanding and his many far-flung interests. He determined that he would get an airplane. Shortly after returning from military service in Japan, he purchased his first plane. He eventually owned eight planes and logged thousands of hours in the air. This savings of time was undoubtedly a huge contributor to his ability to accomplish his life’s work.

Calvin kept a personal journal for 35 years, starting in 1951. He was succinct in his writing, and he undoubtedly left most of his busy schedule out. The April 22, 1969 entry is as follows: “Went to Monticello for a meeting; then to Moab for another, thence to Kayenta to meet some folks; then to Cortez to pick up materials; then to Monticello and on to Blanding. Later I had to fly to Hanksville on business and then back to Blanding.”

A look at a few of the entries in l978 will give you an idea of the diversity of his interests and the scale on which he operated: “Jan 6… Got $300,000 advance on ore. Jan 25… Won lawsuit with Marsh. Mar. 30… Bought Willard Guymond’s land. April 11…Flew to Denver and borrowed $500,000 on a $1 million line of credit.

“April 14… Making plans to enlarge the Gateway Motel. April 19… Considering buying land in Tremonton. April 28… Looking at land in Richfield to buy. May 2… Made offer to buy Box Elder County land. June 31…Closed land deal in Tremonton, Utah. July 31… Talking about buying land in Ely, Nevada. Nov. 26… Flew a man from National Geographic around the area. Dec. 5… Drilling water well in Tremonton.”

His greatest legacy to the people of this area and the nation was his untiring efforts in the political arena. His role as the founder and chief spokesman of the “Sagebrush Rebellion” brought him much national notoriety.

The short list of his political service is as follows:

• Mayor of Blanding

• San Juan County Commissioner for 21 years.

• Term in the State Legislature

• Served on the Board of Directors of United States Association of Counties

• President of U. A. C. – Utah Association of Counties

• President of WIR – Western Region of Counties

Calvin sat on the boards of the following: NACO, Public Lands Steering Committee, Governors Advisory Council on Local Affairs, Association of Local Governments of Southeastern Utah, Governor’s Advisory Council on Glen Canyon, KTVX, San Juan County Health District, San Juan County Special Service District, Transportation Board.

To list all the roads that were built in San Juan County, all the grants awarded to San Juan County, the long term affects of the visionary “rainy-day fund” which Cal instituted, and the scores of other accomplishments would take far more space than this story allows.

In 1988 at the age of 59, while still in his prime, Calvin was diagnosed with cancer. He battled bravely, keeping the same schedule, and running at almost the same pace as he had all his life. He lost the battle on May 11, l990.

Governor Norm Bangerter said the following at Cal’s funeral: “He loved this land. He loved this state. He could have gone anywhere in the world and lived anywhere he wanted. He was an entrepreneur. He was a businessman. He was a risk taker. I think we’d all agree that if there is a person who did things because they believed they were right, it was Cal Black. I would like to think that Cal is not the last of a breed. He left a legacy to us all. He has touched all our lives.”

Cal’s personal history contains letters from a large array of notables on an equally large array of subjects. The crush of tributes which came to Carolyn and the family at his passing demonstrated the respect and esteem in which he was held.

A very short list of those with whom he knew personally and corresponded with in government and business would include President Ronald Reagan, Congressman James V. Hansen, Congressman Howard C. Nielson, Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Congressman Wayne Owens, Senator Jake Garn, Congressman Gunn McKay, The Honorable Manuel Lujan Jr., Secretary of the Interior, Cy Jamison, Director of the Dept. of the Interior.

Add to these notables letters from scores of county commissions across the state and across the west, from business associates and hundreds of personal friends.

The most unexpected tribute came from a man who was the quintessential opposite of everything Calvin Black stood for. Edward Abbey, a nationally recognized extreme environmentalist leader and best selling author, who had fought Cal and the Sagebrush Rebellion every inch of the way and who had even caricaturized Cal as “the Bishop of Blanding” in one of his best selling books, wrote the following dated 12/1/88:

Dear Cal,

“I hear rumors that you’ve come down with a serious illness. If true, I hope you beat it. Although you and I probably disagree about almost everything, you should know that I have never felt the slightest ill will toward you as a person. Furthermore, you still owe me an airplane ride. Good luck and best wishes.”

– Ed Abbey

Cal Black was truly a man of “many” tracks.

San Juan Record

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