The Udall Family


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The Udalls are a family of political giants from a small Arizona town. This pioneer Mormon family helped settle and build the City of St. Johns in Northeastern Arizona. It has produced some of the state’s most influential public servants including legislators, Chief Justices of the Arizona Supreme Court, a candidate for U.S. President and the first Arizonan to serve as a presidential Cabinet member.


Narrator: There are stories in the streets of St. Johns, in the buildings, and the bricks, and the people who laid them. Like photographs, some of these stories fade with time. Others leave a lasting impression. Like the story of the Udalls, a family of political giants from this small Arizona town.

Stewart Udall: Well, that's one of the extraordinary things, the fact that it was this seedbed, in a way, of people who served the public.

Narrator: Stewart Udall was raised in St. Johns and later became president Kennedy's Secretary of Interior, the first Arizonan to serve in the presidential cabinet.

Stewart Udall: My brother, my younger brother, ran for president.

Voice of Mo Udall: And I ask for your support.

Stewart Udall: Now, what does that say about this small town?

Narrator: Or better yet, what does this small town say about the Udalls?

Elma Udall: I always thought that the best way to tell the story of St. Johns is go out to the cemetery. All those pioneers in St. Johns are buried out there.

Narrator: David King Udall is among them. He was born September 1851 in St. Louis to English immigrant Mormons David and Eliza Udall. They took him by wagon train to Utah when he was a baby. Then, in 1880, at the age of 29, David King was called by the Mormon Church to help colonize the Arizona Territory by serving as the bishop of St. Johns. David and his wife Ella helped other Mormon settlers develop the town site they bought for 750 American cows. The people of San Juan, mostly Catholics of Spanish descent, resented the Mormons for encroaching on their village, and those anti-Mormon feelings existed for quite some time. But the Mormons persevered. They diverted the nearby little Colorado River for agricultural use and built what would become the city of St. Johns. It included schools for their children, opportunities for arts and culture in a place with very few modern conveniences. Meanwhile, David King extended his family by taking on a second wife, Ida Hunt Udall. In time, David’s wives gave him eleven kids: five from Ella and six from Ida.

Elma Udall: But in our family, even today, lots of people don't quite know whose children were whose. And they were all David King's, so that didn't matter to him.

Narrator: But it did matter to non-Mormons, and the law was pursuing polygamists. To avoid prosecution, Ida moved away from David, but David couldn't escape the law. He was sentenced to three years in prison, not for polygamy, but on a questionable charge of perjury related to his testimony about a friend's property rights.

David “Burr” Udall: Well, I think really what he got convicted of was polygamy. He was charged with perjury.

Narrator: Four months into his prison term, president Grover Cleveland gave Udall a full and unconditional pardon.

Elma Udall: Even though he was pardoned, it always rankled him that he, on the record, had been charged -- or convicted -- of perjury, of all things. His name meant a lot to him.

Narrator: The Udall name has become synonymous with public service. The trend started in 1899 when David King was elected to the Arizona territorial legislature. Most of his sons followed in his footsteps. John Udall served as a Republican state legislator and Phoenix mayor. Jesse was a Republican state legislator, Graham County Attorney and judge, and a Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court. Don was a Democratic state lawmaker and Navajo County judge. But it was Democrat Levi Udall who produced the most famous politicians in the family's long line of public servants. His sons, Stewart and Morris, served a combined 36 years in the United States Congress. In 1976, Morris went on to seek the democratic nomination for president but lost to Jimmy Carter. Stewart was Secretary of Interior under two presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Stewart Udall: I was elected to Congress in 1954, but I was standing on my father’s shoulders.

Narrator: Stewart's father, Levi, set a strong example for his children. Like his father before him, Levi was the Mormon leader of the St. Johns stake. In public life he was elected Apache County Attorney, Superior Court Judge, and he was the first Udall to serve as Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court.

Stewart Udall: He always preached the most important thing if you get an opportunity is to be a public servant, and be a good one and an honest one. He drilled that into us.

Narrator: Levi and his wife Louise raised their six kids in St. Johns. This is the house they grew up in. They lived off the land, and everyone had plenty to do.

David “Burr” Udall: Chop wood and milk the cows and slop the hogs, that’s what I did in my life.

Elma Udall: Of course, the girls were churning the butter and cleaning the house and taking care of the local garden and all that sort of thing.

Narrator: But when the work was done, there was always time to play.

David “Burr” Udall: You always had games you played, you organized people, you had baseball teams, you had basketball teams.

Narrator: In fact, the Udall boys were pretty good at basketball. Morris even played a season with the Denver Nuggets of the now defunct National Basketball League. Of course, living in St. Johns meant you were part of a team.

David “Burr” Udall: The town was built to make you be better than you were.

Narrator: You worked for the community, and the community worked for you.

Stewart Udall: I've always thought that it was the best place to grow up. You're on the frontier, essentially, and you lived close to the land.

Narrator: That may explain why protecting the environment is a consistent part of the Udall story. It's a story that begins with Arizona Pioneer Mormon, a book David K. Udall wrote about his life that was later published by his son Levi. It's a story that reaches into Mesa, Arizona, where David King served as the first president of the city's Mormon Temple. And it's a story with deep roots in St. Johns, like those of the old elm tree that David King Udall planted in 1887 on the site where he later built his first house.

Elma Udall: It would take five of us to go around the trunk of the tree with our arms out, and we had -- when it turned 100, we had a big tree party.

Narrator: The tree is gone now, but the Udall story doesn't end here... or in the St. Johns cemetery. It’s still being written by new generations of Udalls who carry on the family tradition of public service in Arizona and across the nation.