Michael and Fern Spanos took a little drive from their home in Bountiful to Heber and fell in love with a home on 5th East, as Fern describes, “We looked at it and said, hey let’s move!”
Michael grew up in Park City, so Heber wasn’t far from home. But Heber is where he chose to put some roots down and pour out his heart and soul. Over the years, they raised eight children, six from Fern’s first marriage and two more together, and welcomed eight foster children into their home. As Michael and Fern speak of their past, love of humanity fills their stories. I went into this interview knowing only I was about to talk with a county sheriff and two judges, yes, they both served as judges. The initial “power couple” story I had expected to find, became much more. The kind of power this remarkable couple wields is not only success in the realm of law and justice, but in love — lot’s of love. And love is powerful.
While the Spanos’ tried their best to assure me they are boring and have lived a quiet life of more than 50 years together, I chuckle and shake my head as they spin tales from Saskatchewan, Canada, South Africa, Singapore, and Heber City in the 1970s. Boring? I should think not. In fact, as they describe the Heber of the 70s I’m shocked! Heber Valley had no local dispatch! My jaw drops in disbelief as Michael tells how, “There was no number anyone in this county could call and get fire, ambulance, or police.” I can’t fathom having to call Coalville, who dispatched to the weigh station south of Heber, who then passed word along to someone in the valley for help. The jail was in the basement of the old county building on Main. The janitors served as the night jailers!
Michael served in the Air Force and obtained his first degree in Sociology with an emphasis in Criminology, Juvenile Delinquency, and Child Welfare from the University of Utah. He received his second degree in Law Enforcement and Corrections from Weber State University. Michael’s past experience and education served him and Heber Valley well throughout his 20 years as county sheriff and one year as a county judge. Michael shared, “I used my education. I didn’t have any real experience, but I saw things needed to change.” He ran for sheriff and was sworn in, January of 1979 and served two terms consecutively. He lost a third election, but ran again the next term and served another 12 years before retiring in September 2002.
Michael tells of times when they housed 20 prisoners in the 8 bed, basement prison. They purchased mattresses to lay on the floor. Heber needed a new facility to house prisoners and run the department. Michael began as sheriff with just three deputies. Where there’s a will, there’s a way; and Michael could plainly see Heber was in need of a new building and a dispatch. It was all a work in progress. Quaint as Heber City was, improvements were necessary. Michael began to spearhead the new building. He requested a build with 100 beds and a kitchen. It was an uphill battle. As an officer in the Utah Sheriff’s Association he made agreements and contracts with the United States Marshall Service and the Utah State Prison. He was able to arrange contracts, taking the first group of women out of State Prison and bringing them to Heber’s new jail, housing them for pay. The prisoners did all the cooking and cleaning. They began housing a number of detainees from both the Utah State prison and the Marshall’s Service. Michael also put together contracts with Midway and the Forest Service to patrol their areas to earn extra money adding revenue to his budget.
Other projects he took on in his time as sheriff included bringing Wasatch Search and Rescue up to speed with new equipment and beefing up their budget. Sheriff Spanos had Search and Rescue work the demolition derby to make a profit. He also initiated a fingerprinting safety campaign for children, along with programs like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), and Stranger Danger within the elementary schools, in addition to implementing the McGruff Neighborhood Watch Program.
While Michael was working to improve the police department, Fern was not sitting idly by. Fern Spanos earned her Master’s degree in Psychiatric Social Work and spent time working in the University of Utah department of psychiatry. Fern also worked as a social worker/consultant for the government; she checked in on hospitals’ care for their long term patients. Additionally, she spent many years home with her children raising her family. As her children began school and leaving home she went to work teaching 8th grade here at Wasatch. During that time she began working part time as a city justice court judge.
Fern shared, “I would work at the schools and then run down to the court and work until I was through.” She worked as a teacher and a judge for 11 years. Eventually, she began longing for more flexibility. She stopped teaching and focused on her judgeship for the remaining 11 ½ years until she and Michael retired together. Fern speaks fondly about her time as a judge, “It was fun to help people. I was a social worker by training, and that helped me a lot more as a judge than the law did.”
In 2002 both Fern and Michael retired. They didn’t sit still long. The couple served several missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; starting in Saskatchewan, Canada. They worked primarily with the First Nations people. A highlight of Fern’s experience was writing the histories of some of the older women. Once she had completed her written work it was bound and gifted to the people. Their second mission was to Durbin, South Africa. They worked in the townships in the bush of Africa. The conditions were deplorable. Michael was emotional when he shared, “The worst thing about Africa was that the people were so hungry.” Fern expressed how hard it was to see them stark naked and hungry, especially the children. “Those children are so beautiful, and loving and well behaved.” She tenderly shared how the children would sit with her, rubbing her arms and face, fascinated by the feel and color of her skin. She would regularly get impetigo and have to stay away until her skin cleared up, but then she’d hurry back to be with the children again. Fern and Michael shared how the children were drawn to where there was food and the women would walk such far distances for water. They had to work so hard just to eat. Michael worked with the church leadership in Africa to support families in finding ways to encourage and help them. The couple discovered that the women had a difficult time relating to men, so Fern, with her social work background, would spend time with the women and families establishing their needs; then Michael would step in to facilitate the assistance and support.
Upon return to the states Michael had to have heart surgery along with other various medical procedures. Once he healed, a job as a county judge became available. He served for almost one year before they were called on another mission. This time it was Argentina. The call didn’t last long before they were reassigned to a Singapore mission instead. Again, they found themselves working with the native people. Regulations and restrictions were very strict in what they could and could not do through their church. They rolled up their sleeves and got to work loving the people. Michael laughs about the boats used to get from one location to another, “packed so full of chickens and people and stuff that we thought we were going to sink.” Fern giggles relaying the hardest part for her was walking the plank to get off the boat to shore. They would teach, sitting on the floors and using a translator to communicate the concepts of the gospel they traveled to share. Fern recalled, “They were such humble people.”
Returning home from Singapore they were asked to serve in Heber as employment missionaries. After traveling the world touching lives and working for the greater good they were happy to be back home in Heber Valley. Michael and Fern laugh quietly as they claim they’re “put out to pasture now.” I disagree, now they travel the world digitally, tracking down ancestors, working on genealogy, and indexing documents for others to access. I certainly did track down a “power couple” of Heber City. The Spanos’ powerful hearts know no bounds — they are overflowing with service and love for their worldwide community.