When John Curtis was sworn in as Provo mayor seven years ago, his downtown office had forest green carpet, outdated furniture and wood paneling. It didn’t feel like “him,” so John went to work rebranding the office.
He painted the blue wall himself. He climbed into the ceiling and hung a modern, open-air display case. John’s supportive family gave him curtains for his birthday. He bought new furniture with his own money at the RC Willey outlet, and he had an Eagle Scout lay new carpet as a service project.
And just like that, the mayor’s office had a new look, a new vibe, and a new excitement in an old space. Symbolic. Tucked away in his new white cabinet, John has a 1927 “Provo Champions” trophy with a piece of the green flooring stashed inside.
“When I got here, nobody had thrown anything away for a long time,” John says. “I got rid of a lot of things, but I keep this little piece as a momento of where I started.”
During John’s two terms as mayor, he’s taken the city from “forest green” to a hip municipality with concerts, city pride and diversity of thought and economics.
In short, John is our Person of the Year as he enters his last few months in office.
Knock Your Socks Off
John graduated from high school in Salt Lake City in 1978, and his drawers were full of brown, blue and off-white Levi cords.
“That was my uniform — plus a beard my senior year,” he says. “Nobody would say I was fashionable back then.”
But John’s legacy as Provo mayor can’t be described without his wardrobe — and particularly his footwear. He changes socks up to three times a day depending on what events he has tightly scheduled on his meticulously organized calendar.
“My socks give people a reason to come up and talk to me,” John says. “I can’t go through a day without somebody asking to see what I’ve got on my feet. It’s an automatic ice breaker, which I enjoy because politicians can be unapproachable. My socks give me a little license to crack through that stodgy wall.”
The sock fetish has its origins in John seeing striped socks on a clearance rack. He bought them and had fun wearing the bright, obnoxious pair around the office.
“This was way ahead of when everyone was wearing colorful socks,” he says.
John’s sock reputation took a giant step forward when he handed out pairs at the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce’s annual Executive Summit at Sundance. From that point on, choosing his socks became the most important part of his outfit as he headed to his office at 7 a.m. each morning.
“I look for socks wherever I go,” he says. “I can’t go in a store without looking at their socks — even Walmart. If they are a good price and they will put a smile on somebody’s face, I buy them.”
At the end of a conference John hosted for mayors, he gave everyone a pair of socks.
“And now everyone remembers me and my socks,” he says. “For a couple of dollars, you can make a lasting impression.”
“My socks give people a reason to come up and talk to me. I can’t go through a day without somebody asking to see what I’ve got on my feet. It’s an automatic icebreaker.” — Provo Mayor John Curtis
Provo On The Map
John’s heart has always beat wildly for the city where he earned his BYU degree — and his excitement is contagious. Although he’s hesitant to talk about a “legacy” he will leave behind, John does feel that perhaps he has helped the city feel good about itself.
One of John’s most famous mayor moments came when the Google Fiber deal was announced. Only six people knew it was going to happen — in fact, the standard in the city offices was that no spouses could know about the announcement.
“Now that’s a high standard,” he says. “It was so secretive over a number of months that I lost the ability to gather perspective on whether this was a good thing, a big thing for our city. I believed it would be the most significant career achievement of my life, but I didn’t know if everyone else would agree.”
The word “epic” became the social media buzz word — in sincerity and in jest — to describe the windy day when Google Fiber came to town. Even so, John considers his work on Rock Canyon to be more impactful.
“One hundred years from now, we won’t be using fiber and nobody will care that Google came to town,” he says. “But they will care that we preserved the canyon.”
John believes Provo has pride in itself, which encompasses the rec center, the airport, the downtown scene and the way Provo gets talked about.
“I didn’t come to this office with an agenda, other than to run things well. But it almost seems like there’s been fairy dust in the city the past few years,” he says.
Part of the twinkle has come from the Rooftop Concert Series, which he heralds as a way to break down the divisions in this county seat.
“You’ll see people my age there with grandkids, and you’ll see millennials. Every stripe of person is there to hear the music and enjoy the ambiance. A 70-year-old stands next to a 7-year-old, and that’s when we realize how much we truly have in common,” he says.
John senses that sometimes Provo residents have been embarrassed that we don’t have bars on every corner and that health is important.
“We have quality people and a quality of life here,” he says. “We’ve learned how to articulate who we are, how it feels here and why we feel pride in our city.”
Hanging His Socks Up
Although John is perhaps the most popular Provo mayor of all time, he announced in the fall that he would not be running for re-election in 2017. His fans went into mourning and tried to change his mind. But he put his well-appointed foot down and said this would be his final year.
“It’s hard to explain to somebody why in the world I could not continue,” he says. “But it’s healthy for the city and it’s healthy for me. There’s somebody who can now take Provo to the next level, and I need to make way for them to do that.”
In characteristically thoughtful fashion, John announced his non-election early enough to give potential candidates time to arrange their lives for a full-time political position.
“I’m sad about not running again, but my decision is driven by this internal feeling that it’s the right thing to do,” he admits.
Not His First Political Rodeo
Although John might seem like a political staple in Utah County, his first step into the election ring wasn’t pretty.
“My little secret is that I ran for the Utah State Senate against Curt Bramble,” he says. “I’m a conservative Republican, but I was concerned with the dominance of one party and I wanted to show that we should have good candidates from both parties, so I ran as a Democrat. Nobody understood what I was trying to do.”
Although he walked away with his campaign signs and a loss, John sees the good that came from his first foray into politics. He met people, he learned processes and he saw that failure wasn’t the end of the road.
“I would never have run for mayor if I hadn’t had those experiences,” he says.
Another factor that contributed to his bid for mayor was when his business had interactions with the city, and the experience planted a seed that change was needed.
“The idea grew and grew and grew until I couldn’t do anything but run,” he says. “I felt a strong internal pull to run. I never felt like I would necessarily win. The mission for me was to run.”
John won his first term of mayor against Steve Clark, a popular local resident and the father of bloggers Stephanie Nielson and Courtney Kendrick, and a son who John employed at Action Target.
“Everybody has a connection to Steve, so when I was running against him, I often heard people say, ‘I hear you are an OK guy, but I already know Steve,’” John says.
Ironically, one of John’s most successful and strategic moves was hiring Steve’s daughter Courtney in the mayor’s office to help him with speeches, event planning and outreach.
While John’s mayoral retirement announcement came as a shock, those who know him well would have seen his career pattern emerging once again.
“I tend to move in 10-year chunks,” John says.
This decade-approach to his livelihood began when he returned from his LDS mission to Taiwan. John’s uncle invited him over to hear about a business opportunity. Amway.
While John didn’t want to build a multi-level team, he did meet someone there who represented the Citizen watch company in Utah. He offered John a job, and he began traveling around the state in his Volkswagen Beetle selling watches to jewelry stores. John’s friend soon left the company, and Citizen gave this young 23-year-old a position that covered six states. Before long, John was named their national salesman of the year.
“Much of my life has unfolded as I’ve followed up on open doors,” he says. “The next opportunity has always led to the next opportunity.”
John was hired by the OC Tanner company, and the Curtis family relocated to California and then Virginia. After his bi-coastal adventures, his next career chapter brought them back to Utah where he became a partner with Action Target.
“At OC Tanner, we had the money to do everything top-notch at the company, while at Action Target we had a hole in the carpet and we would brag about it to show how lean we were,” he says. “Both of these experiences have much to do with my ability to be the mayor where resources vary from year to year.”
To Have and To Hold — But Not Too Tightly
Those who know the Curtises well understand the role Sue plays in bringing stability and independence to a relationship where the two have been known to vote on opposite sides of the ballot. John and Sue met in high school when he was in his first period class and she came into the room to use the phone.
“I was immediately struck that this is somebody I wanted to know,” he says. “A few days later, we were walking through the parking lot and I asked her on our first date — junior prom. It was March 17. We got engaged four years later on March 17.”
The green-themed relationship has grown and the couple will celebrate their 34th anniversary this year.
“She’s my biggest fan,” he says. “She believes in me far more than I believe in myself. I hope we do that for each other.”
However, they don’t hash out work at the end of each day.
“We don’t talk about the city, but she’s in tune. She can read the paper and talk to people. We spend our time talking about our lives outside of work, and we spend time with our six kids and four grandkids,” he says. “Grandparenthood is as good as everybody says.”
When John and Sue are apart, they operate independently. For example, when Sue announces that she’s going on a tennis trip for a day or two, John has to stop himself from smiling — not that he won’t miss his best friend, but as an introvert he loves time alone.
“When we moved out east, I drove the car back by myself, and for some reason that stays in my mind as one of my best vacations,” he says.
Although John has always enjoyed time alone, including exercising nearly every day, he did not label himself an introvert until he took office as mayor.
“As much as I love this job, I don’t ever get to relax — even at a football or basketball game,” he says. “I am careful not to eat sloppily in a restaurant or to inadvertantly cut in a line. With social media, a misstep could be public immediately. I’ve learned the great value and peace in closing a door behind me and having some quiet time to recharge my batteries.”
Almost a Perfectionist
Earlier in his career, John couldn’t find a calendar system that fit his needs so he designed and printed his own.
“I’m OCD on neatness,” he says. “I live and die on systems. Nowadays I use Google Docs for my to-dos and other lists.”
When John travels, he wants to know ahead of time what roads he’ll be taking, what hotel he’s going to and the exact itinerary. He says his wife goes on a trip without prebooking where she’ll stay or exactly how things will go. He marvels at how she can keep her physical therapist appointments straight even if she doesn’t write them down, while he has weeks of appointments blocked out.
But when it comes to correspondence, John is only a “90 percent perfectionist.”
“The time it would take to get something from 90 percent to 100 percent perfect is not worth it to me,” he says. “I like to go fast.”
For example, when John receives an email or tweet with a concern about the city such as street lights around campus or homelessness, he often responds with a one-take video response.
“It’s part of my style to do things quickly,” he says. “Even when we created the video to announce I wasn’t running again, we didn’t take time to put music behind it and get it perfect. I just want to communicate.”
(Note: When I emailed to thank him for the interview and remind him about gathering his socks for the photo, John sent back a 19-second video response.)
John’s parents both passed away in the last 18 months, which has had a greater impact on him than anticipated.
“I’m still sorting through all those things,” he says. “My father — at 5-foot-5 — was the front man on everything, while my mom was a quiet rock. Even at my mother’s funeral, everyone wanted to talk to me about my father. He cared about people and made everyone feel special.”
Even with her quiet nature, John’s mom (originally from Dingle, Idaho) was the first woman president of the Granite School District. He learned leadership, salesmanship and frugality from his parents.
“My parents’ philosophy was why spend money on a hotel when you can camp,” he remembers. The family camped through Europe when John was 13 years old.
John and his three siblings were raised in East Millcreek — and John loves that Provo reminds him of the area where he grew up.
“One of my big fears for Provo is that it will grow and lose that warm, fun, friendly feeling,” he says.
Let’s Figure It Out
John’s ability to solve problems has its genesis in two places — China and his maternal family tree.
“The Chinese don’t let engineering principles or logic stop them,” John says. “I learned as a missionary to never accept that something couldn’t be done. I came home knowing that I could stick to a task and figure it out.”
In addition, the term “Ream ingenuity” refers to his mother’s maiden name and their familial skill of solving problems without hiring an expert or spending money unnecessarily.
This can sometimes backfire, like on a legendary trip to Lake Powell when John refused to fix the Astro van before he and his family pulled their boat south on their vacation. A long ride home with a battery problem included hitchhiking, wearing bathing suits spattered in protein shake, and having the family spread out throughout the state.
John acknowledges the perseverance (or stubbornness) he inherited and chooses to live by. One area where the family is not frugal is in family vacations.
“If it’s going to build family unity, we do it,” he says.
John is asked regularly if he’s retiring so he can run for governor.
“And I always answer by saying we already have a good governor,” John retorts. “I never aspired to be mayor, and I don’t aspire to be governor. But if that’s where life takes me, that would be pretty amazing.”
“Age 56 is way too young to start resting, but I don’t have the next thing locked in and figured out. I’m not sure what an old mayor does. There’s no career path for a retiring politician.” — Provo Mayor John Curtis
John plans to “push against a few doors” and see which one of them will open.
“Age 56 is way too young to start resting, but I don’t have the next thing locked in and figured out,” he admits. “I’m not sure what an old mayor does. There’s no career path for a retiring politician. I would enjoy getting back in the private sector. I might want to start a business. If the right political opportunity opened, I may jump back into that arena.”
One thing is for sure, you’ll still be able to find him in the sock aisle.