Leaving the Fold
James W. Ure, editor

Chapter 8.
Met Johnson

Virtue is like a rich stone—best plain set.
—Francis Bacon

[p.89] A two-term Utah legislator, Met Johnson is known for his straight talk and opposition to the federal government’s management of western lands. His leadership in the Western States Coalition, as well as his business activities, keep him hopping.

Met’s in business with his sons, and they make a living buying, improving, then selling ranch properties in the intermountain states. Trying to reach him at his home in New Harmony (south of Cedar City) proved difficult. At last, I got a call.

“I can meet you in Antimony,” he said. “I’m putting in an irrigation system in a ranch right across the street from the store.”

“Which store?” I asked.

“There’s only one here.”

We met over Easter weekend; the air was cool, the cottonwoods were beginning to bud. A big man in Levis left a front-loader at a headgate and pushed back his Comanche Canyon Horse Company cap as he greeted me. We went inside an old outbuilding Met’s already refinished into pleasant—if temporary—living quarters. He’ll stay here until this ranch is ready to market.

He invites you into the only chair, and pulls an upended bucket to sit [p.90] on. On a table are cans of chili, cut green beans, and soup. A two-burner camp stove sits nearby. No women here.

Met’s a barrel-chested man with a voice like a shotgun. He’s got an unaffected, natural way of phrasing that warms you to him. His sense of humor is sometimes alarming. When he first began working on the Antimony property, he posted signs telling the community he was going to build a hog farm. After citizens got over their shock and realized Met was teasing, they came to love telling the story as a joke on themselves. In southern Utah just about everyone knows and likes Met Johnson.

My brother Joe accompanied me on this trip. As I was packing my recording equipment after the interview, Met was talking to him. When we stood up to leave, Met said to me: “You know, I been talkin’ to your brother Joe here, and we both agreed we didn’t like you.” Then he let loose one of his belly laughs and a wink. Maybe you had to be there, but Met Johnson knocks me out.

Met graduated from North Sevier High School where he was student body president. He attended Pasadena City College in California on a basketball scholarship until a knee injury took him out of play. The knee healed and he played basketball at Southern Utah State College in Cedar City, where he was also student body president, a drum major, and took part in track events. He eventually earned a bachelor’s degree from Utah State, graduating in English (“I needed 178 credits to graduate and I had damn near 300 hours. I just liked everything,” he says). He then taught school in Japan and Okinawa. After returning home, he started running the family farm and continued to teach.

Met attended an auctioneer school and eventually left teaching to go into the auctioneering business. He ran the livestock market in Cedar City for L. W. Gardner for several years, until he bought him out. Met was elected to two terms in the Utah State Legislature representing Washington County, where he made his home in the town of New Harmony. He was active in the Western States Coalition, a non-partisan political organization seeking more shared jurisdiction for management [p.91]of public lands. About 1995 he left Utah politics and moved to Wyoming for a short time, but now lives in New Harmony, Utah.

When were you born?
In 1941.

In Salina, Sevier County. Redmond, actually.

You come from a pioneer line; your ancestors were active Mormon?
I wouldn’t say active. Participating maybe is a better word.

Were you participating from an early age?
I went to Primary, I think, regularly, and Sunday school from time to time, but my father also … He worked for the state road, but he always was in agribusiness and bought little farms and would fix them up and whatever. Then he got in the bishopric. He wasn’t very active before he got in the bishopric. Then I would run the farms, I’d say, probably, when I was twelve or so. I’m not complaining. That was fine, but a lot of times he’d have church obligations and I’d run the farms or pastures or whatever. And I was happy to do that. That was an obligation I had or an opportunity to do his farming chores when he was participating as a bishop.

You were baptized at eight, like most of us?

Did you have brothers and sisters?
I have a younger sister and a younger brother.

What does Met stand for? Is that short for something?
Yes, it is, but we’ll just leave that alone. I’m like the Johnny Cash song—“A Boy Named Sue.” But Met’s been my name since I was twelve. In fact, when I was three or four they called me Met just for short. I don’t have anything that’s in my real name, any property or anything, nothing. It’s just been Met. The bonds, the livestock market, the ranches. Licenses. Everything’s just Met.

[p.92]Was your mother or father more active? Or were they equally active?
No, my father was more active.

But your mother was Mormon?
Oh, yes.

Was there ever any discussion between them about being more active in the church?
No, never.

Were you a Boy Scout?
An Eagle Scout.

You had to be active in the ward to get that?
I wouldn’t say really active. There was another young man who wasn’t LDS at all. He participated with us. Salina is a different community. Of course, it’s a Mormon community, but it’s kind of like a non-Mormon community in a way because the railroad was there and the turkey plant and the carrot plants, the beets, the mines—the coal mines, the salt mines. There was a mix of people who all got along whether they were Mormons or non-Mormons. You know, I lived in Salt Lake and I’ve gone to school at different universities and been in lots of circumstances, even when I went to school in Pasadena. The Mormons and the non-Mormons—I wouldn’t say they were at odds, but there seemed to be an antagonism, a slight one maybe that you’d hear in church about the non-Mormons, that they haven’t seen the right way, or too bad for them, and we have the only church. And then the non-Mormon people, when I’d be around them, they’d cuss the Mormons for being pious. I couldn’t see the point of either side taking issue with the other over things like that. It didn’t make sense to me. They’re both good kinds of people.

You were active in church?
I wouldn’t say active. Semi-active—in my younger years, yes.

Was church of interest to you? Boy Scouts must’ve been of interest. But what about actually attending a Sunday school class?
That all depended on the instructor. Some instructors were fine and used anecdotes, and others were condemning, if you will, in a way—maybe didn’t condemn those of us who were in a class, but condemned other people or con-[p.93]demned other ways of life. I don’t know that they actually condemned other religions, but were critical of it. And that seemed to bother me some.

You’d seen other people and the way they lived in Salina?
Yes. I worked for other farmers, too. We didn’t have a lot of machinery, so if we needed to borrow a baler, I’d go haul somebody’s hay so we could borrow the baler. Consequently, I worked with lots of adults as a young man, and a lot of those adults were antagonistic towards the Mormons, and some of them were very pious Mormons. To me, they were both good guys. And why they had this friction—now I’m using the eccentrics in Salina. Ninety percent of Salina got along—Mormon or non-Mormon, no big deal. But these two … What shall I say?

The fringes?
Yes, I guess the fringes. I liked to work for both guys, and why they didn’t like each other. You’d hear “SOB Mormon” or “SOB gentile.” I never did understand that. Hell, they both treated me fine. And for all I knew, they always paid their bills and those kinds of things—the ethics were above reproach with both gentlemen I’m thinking of. It confused me as to why they should use standards of the church or the Word of Wisdom, let’s say, more than anything, as a way to judge someone.

Later when I was a senior in high school, my father had an opportunity to go run a ranch in the corner of northern California, Oregon, and Nevada. You could just throw a rock from the ranch house and damn near hit either of the other states. Anyway, this was a really remote area. That’s my point. And the church there—it was a community church, and it was run by a guy named Nat—a little short guy. He had a traveling circuit that went up into Oregon and out in all these remote areas, and out in Nevada and then northern California. When I say northern California, it’s more like Nevada and Oregon than it was any part of California. Anyway, so we went there, and it was non-sectarian. Everybody went to church there but Catholics. Of course, they had a church of their own not too far away, meaning sixty miles or so. So here I am with the Presbyterians … heck, I don’t know, they were every denomination. But the sermons there, to me, are probably what [p.94]changed my attitude a lot and set me on a course of being noncommittal to a specific set of doctrines. Let’s call it that. I went to the church for an hour and listened to the sermon, and sometimes it was on Monday night and sometimes it was on Thursday night. About every ten months it would be on Sunday. Maybe because they rotated so you could have it once in a while on Sunday. When it was during the weekday, the evening, I’d go to church. When it was on Sunday, I didn’t go, because usually I went fishing or raising hell somewhere. Anyway, the whole sermon as long as I was there was the same. Well, not the same sermon obviously, but the same general idea. It was “peace and goodwill towards everybody,” and like I said, “friendship and trust the Lord and have faith” and those kinds of things. They never, never did get into any criticism at all of anybody. There was always praise for people who were good people and the challenge for us to be good. If you sin, fine, but repent. See what I mean? It was positive. That’s the best word. Everything was positive, and I really enjoyed that. Then, of course, you go on to college and that whole scenario. Of course, I drank beer and smoked and raised hell. They probably didn’t want me to come to church. I don’t know.

How old were you when you started to smoke?
I was in athletics in college.

No. Track and basketball.

How tall are you?
I was six feet five then. Probably six four now. Anyway, I was a very good athlete—no brag, just fact—so I trained hard when I was in athletics. Then when I was out in off-season, of course I did what all my roommates and all my friends did. Probably I was the leader, probably led some astray. It was a long time ago. Wouldn’t be proud if I led anybody astray. And I still chew tobacco. I probably am the first house member in the Utah State Legislature that ever chewed tobacco the whole time I was in the legislature. People would say, “What’s that in your pocket?” I’d say, “Oh, it’s my boot polish.” But I have no criticism of the Mormon religion at all. In fact, I would recommend … Well, and this is the funny thing, I think, in my life. Lana [his wife] and I went to the Orient with the military as instructors.

[p.95]Anyway, we were around people, of course, who probably hadn’t met somebody from Utah. So the first thing is, “Are you a Mormon?” We’d say, “No, Jack Mormons; we won’t deny we’re Mormons, but we certainly aren’t practicing Mormons or orthodox.” So if they ever criticized the church, I’d be the first to defend it. Do you see what I mean? If they have misunderstandings, that’s unfortunate because I think the Mormon religion—let me put it this way—is more a way of life. If I could wave a magic wand over the world, I would have everybody be a Mormon. And then take a few of the bad Mormons out of the clergy. I think if people would follow the Mormon way in raising their children and the health standards, it makes a lot of good common sense. It’s surprising to me that the government is trying to not impose, yet legislates more ethics and morality that the churches are already preaching. Do you see what I mean? I won’t go into politics, but there is … I just believe that if everyone was a hell of a lot more Christian, we’d have a hell of a lot less problems. Period.

Like the young men who go on missions. I help a lot of them financially if I know that they’re having a struggle. And happy to do it. I’m not trying to promote a specific religion as in Mormonism, to put people in a forced belief. I think they’re just out there doing good and maybe giving people faith and hope and those people—especially those folks in those countries that are so … well, third world countries, let’s put it that way. Hell, they need some kind of a lift. And if these young men and women are there doing it, I’ll help them. Damn right.

You don’t attend church anymore?

When was the last time you were in a Mormon church?
Probably if I was to a funeral or spoke at one.

Do you pay tithing?

But you do help the missionaries?

Does being inactive and living in rural Utah in any way affect the way that you relate to your friends and neighbors? Do you feel that you’re ever treated differently, being an inactive Mormon in the town of Antimony?
[p.96]No. Or even in New Harmony. New Harmony is smaller than Antimony. No. I mean, our very dearest friends—they’re elderly people. They were assigned as our ward teachers. I don’t know if they call them that anymore. But we’re delighted to have them come once a month. If they’re ill or if it’s cold or whatever, we go down to their house so they don’t have to get out. You know, to accommodate. But I’m tickled to death to share a half hour with those folks. But there are non-Mormons in New Harmony, and non-Mormons here in Antimony. I’m friends with all of them, but they criticize each other, and that’s what irritates me. The Mormon church doesn’t irritate me. The non-Mormons, they don’t irritate me. But why they have that damn rubbing-salt-in-the-wound deal, that’s what I don’t understand. I never discuss religion with anybody, ever, but that always makes me scratch my head. My hell, just leave it all alone. If he’s a good guy, he’s a good guy. Period. If he goes to church, great. If he doesn’t go to church, great. I guess speaking a little theologically, in my opinion, the Lord is the only judge there is. Of course, we’ll find out when we get to heaven—if we go. But anyway, so to judge each other on our own values, I just don’t buy that.

What’s your basic belief? Do you believe in Joseph Smith as a prophet and in the story of the golden plates?
Well, I’ll put in percentages. I’d probably give it 50 percent yes and 50 percent no, just because I’ve never read the Bible totally, and I’ve never read the Book of Mormon. So I have so much respect for some people who say they have a testimony and they believe it, that it’s like if somebody says, “Well, Met, I’ve seen the sun and I’ve seen blue sky and I’ve seen water,” and maybe I’m blind. Do you know what I mean? But they’re credible people—I’m going to believe what they tell me. And these people that I’m referring to that I have so much respect for, bishops and stake presidents and whatever, when they say that, there’s no way that I’d say, Oh, hell, I don’t … I just don’t deal with it. So do I or do I not? I don’t know. Never studied that in my mind. Of course, I’ve never studied it in literature either. So …

Do you have children?
Three sons.

How are you raising them?
[p.97]Just like I am. Even if I tried to do it differently, they’d probably … Anyway, how am I going to say, Do what I say, not what I do?

Are they active?
No. None of them.

And your wife?
No. Same as me. We have the very same philosophy, I think, about just trying to be good and leave that other, those friction things, out of it. If we can be good people and honorable and live the Golden Rule, then probably that’s the religion we practice.

What happens to Met Johnson when he dies?
The hell if I know. The only thing I can handle right now? I can handle the way I live. That’s all I can do. If there is a judgment day and I pass, fine. And if I don’t pass, I guess that’s my problem. So that’s all I can tell you.

I don’t know if you knew, but I owned the livestock market for thirty years, so I dealt with thousands of people every year. And some of the worst deals I ever got in was with some of the so-called best-go-to-church Mormons. Now I’d be in other bad deals with people who’d lie and cheat, etc., you know on weigh-ups or weights or quality of cattle or whatever it was. But if they weren’t a Mormon, I found myself saying, “He’s just a no-good son of a gun.” Now, if they were a Mormon, “He’s a no-good son-of-a-bitching Mormon.” That’s not fair for me to say that. I was using the church because I happened to know that he went to church or he was in the bishopric or the Sunday school something. And I really wish that I’d never done that. That wasn’t the church’s fault, for hell sake. If there really is a church, and all that really is true, the Lord is going to be more in judgment of that no-good sucker than I was, probably. Do you see what I mean? So that’s again just judging, and I shouldn’t have done that. But I did that probably on four or five occasions. Just get so damned mad about something that I say what I don’t like people to say. And I said it. So I don’t do that again, but it happened a time or two.

Do you agree with the church’s politics?
I’m complimentary of the church’s politics in the fact that I think that they pretty well stay out of it, meaning the organization of the [p.98]LDS church. Let’s just use the legislature. Then I think there were times that legislators as individuals—not maybe representing the church—I don’t think have any authority to represent the church. But because they represented their values or what they thought, I think, they tried to impose church values on legislation. Do you see what I mean? But I don’t think the church felt that way. Let me give you a very good example. I think Mel Brown [a Republican legislator and former speaker of the Utah House of Representatives] is probably the most religious, honorable man that I know. Neil Nielsen is a bishop, and I went over when their church burned down and we raised $30,000. Hell, I don’t know if I smoked or chewed then. Anyway, I was his good friend, an auctioneer, and he asked me to come help, and I said I’d be happy to. And I did. Anyway, so you take guys like that—and I could name a thousand … But Mel Brown is so honorable, not only with religion and the way he practices it, but with everyone else that he’d never propose in the name of the church or in his own beliefs. Do you see what I mean? That’s the admirable character about him being, I think, a very pure Mormon. In my mind he is one of the greatest guys ever, and he’d never impose his religious values in legislation. Then there’s others who sometimes did. See? In the Mormon church as in any church there’s all kinds of people. Some of them are great, and some of them are good, and some of them are not so good, and then there’s a few stinkers.

If I were the president of the Mormon church, would you have any suggestions about how I should run the church or how I could do things better or worse?
The current president … I’ve listened to him a couple times, you know, on the radio in my pickup or something like that. Of course, I’ve never listened to many of the presidents, but this gentleman … I saw him interviewed on TV one time, and I have so much respect for him and the way he articulates things and the way he seems to be all in good balance that I’m very, very impressed with his leadership. And my criticism wouldn’t be of him if I had to say something to him. It would be of the people who maybe misinterpret what the doctrine is or what he says, and then leverage it against another human being. Maybe a church member and/or maybe a non-church member. That’s where I think the friction is between the Mormons and the non-Mormons. It’s [p.99] not the church or the non-church, it’s the people who … well, I don’t know what a good example would be. But the church doesn’t do the wrong thing as an organization, but the people in it misinterpret and then use it in the wrong way. I mean, they use church to do business or to leverage things, you know, like from the bank—I’m just using this as an example—and/or from their neighbor or brother so-and-so. Church should be practiced, in my opinion, personally and/or in Sunday school or whatever the meetings are. I don’t think it has a place in the business world or in the political world. Do you see what I mean? So I can clearly draw the line because I don’t participate in church, so I don’t have any leverage that way, but I see others who do. That bothers me a little bit that they do that. But I’m not the judge, so I’m just telling you what bothers me.

Is the Mormon church the only true church?
I have a problem with that. In fact, not to reiterate what I said—and I shouldn’t say everybody should be Christians, because the Japanese … Of course, that’s the only culture I lived in that was really dominant of either one of the two religions that aren’t Christian. But, damn, it’s all just if you’re good or bad to me. So the only true church? Well, I can’t disagree and I can’t agree. So I just don’t ever make an issue out of it.