SUBLETTE COUNTY – Mike Enzi was working on his pilot’s license when he chose Dave Bell for a small flight from Gillette to Cheyenne.
They arrived in Cheyenne, Enzi having navigated a crosswind in the airport and Bell’s stomach “up to my eyes.” Green to the gills but safely on the ground, Bell joined Enzi – Gillette’s mayor at the time – in a car headed for the Capitol in the late 1970s. Bell, the actual director of Gillette’s chamber of commerce at the time, asked in what capacity was he tabbed to tagalong as.
“Hey Mike, who am I today?” he wondered. “Chamber manager, your buddy, what am I?”
Enzi answered, “Today, you’re the chairman of the future directions committee.”
They arrived at the Capitol in the sweltering public conference room full of elected officials – including Gov. Ed Herschler. Eventually, Gov. Herschler leaned back in his chair and asked who Bell was. Bell answered with the same title Enzi told him.
“That’s the biggest load of crap I’ve heard all day long,” Bell remembered Herschler saying. “Enzi, what do you want?”
The Gillette mayor explained the city needed $25 million for the pipeline delivering water from the Madison Formation to Gillette. And in that piping hot room the deal eventually got done, Enzi scoring valuable funds for his community that were paid out thereafter.
Bell, now a Pinedale citizen and notably the newest member of the Sublette County Hospital District, remembered his old friend as a peacemaker unafraid of reaching across the aisle to make his greatest deals.
Enzi, who worked his way from mayor of Gillette to state representative and ultimately to U.S. senator, died late Monday when he succumbed to injuries sustained in a bicycle accident suffered outside Gillette on July 23. The news was confirmed in a Facebook post from his family, which said he never regained consciousness after being transported to UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland, Colo. He was 77.
Bell remembered meeting Enzi his first night in Gillette, having chosen to attend a city council meeting as a bright-eyed man of 23 tasked with running the chamber of commerce in 1976. The place was packed. A proposed ordinance concerning conditions of dog ownership elicited a furious response from a portion of residents. Calm, collected, commanding the meeting with a firm grasp of Robert’s rules of orders, Enzi kept civility among the room.
“He kept decorum, kept the process moving but yet gave everybody an opportunity to vent,” Bell said. “That was my very first experience with Mike. …That young age, you knew that guy was going some place.”
Working together as mayor and chamber representative, as well as with Flip McConnaughey and Joe Racine, they put together a “Chamber Industrial Committee” that included the heads of coal mines coming to the area. The recently passed Clean Air Act incentivized companies to flee Appalachia for Wyoming because lower sulfur levels met new criteria.
But, working the newly established committee, they got the coal companies to pay for studies on Gillette’s water, sewer and roads systems.
“It was truly remarkable what was occurring,” Bell said. “We were running this whole kind of thing, helping raise money and help the town see what was needed.”
Bell said Enzi was a man of integrity and while he may not be etched into the throes of American history as a Congressman with landmark legislation, part of Enzi’s legacy will be the contributions he made in silence.
Yet, Enzi’s passing didn’t illicit silence. All Wyoming Congressional representatives issued statements. Sen. John Barrasso talked about Enzi’s life and legacy on the Senate floor Tuesday morning, having worked alongside the former senator in Washington.
“Mike Enzi was a moral compass for many of us, and he always pointed true north,” Barrasso said.
Junior Sen. Cynthia Lummis, who filled the vacancy left by Enzi’s retirement from the U.S. Senate in 2020, joined Barrasso in paying tribute.
“Wyoming has had no greater champion than Mike Enzi,” she said. “He always put Wyoming first, and worked harder than anyone to serve his constituents.”
Rep. Liz Cheney issued a statement in the early hours of the morning, shortly after the family confirmed the news. She cited memories of working with Enzi, some dating back to her family’s longstanding working relationship with him.
“Mike was a straight-shooter, an honest broker, and a soft-spoken but powerful advocate for the causes he cared deeply about,” Cheney’s statement read.
Enzi’s passing also prompted statements from state and local elected officials, as well as various entities throughout the state. The Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation noted Enzi for his 80-20 principal where someone would focus on the 80 percent of items they could agree upon to help people. The National Federation of Independent Business remembered Enzi as one of its most dependable allies in Congress, a champion for small business. State Superintendent Jillian Balow thanked Enzi for his public service and University of Wyoming President Ed Seidel issued a lengthy statement outlining Enzi’s accomplishments to various education services. The Wyoming Legislature’s presiding officers issued a joint statement mourning the loss of a former representative and beloved colleague. Gov. Mark Gordon issued flags be flown at half-staff to honor the former elected official.
Enzi grew up in Thermopolis, graduated from both George Washington University and University of Denver, and moved to Gillette to expand his father’s business in 1969. He served as mayor of Gillette before becoming a representative and senator in the Wyoming Legislature from 1987 to 1997. Enzi served four terms in the U.S. Senate, starting in 1996 before retiring at the culmination of his final term in 2020.
According to a report from the Gillette News Record, he was injured around 8:30 p.m. on July 23 near his home. Gillette attorney and family friend John Daly was later quoted by the News Record as saying Enzi broke his neck and some ribs in the accident.