Colleagues remember Mike Enzi as passionate leader, family man
CHEYENNE – Former U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., sent his longtime colleague Max D’Onofrio an email last month that got lost in a folder somewhere. By the time D’Onofrio discovered it, he realized he’d never get to respond.
“I restarted my computer, and it popped up moments after I found out he died,” D’Onofrio, Enzi’s former communications director, said Tuesday. “He was just checking in on how I was doing, and he was letting me know he was worrying about me, and he wanted to know how me and my wife were. The fact that a former senator … was taking the time to check in on how I was doing, that’s so meaningful.”
Enzi died Monday night from injuries he suffered Friday in a serious bicycle accident.
The retired senator, 77, was riding around 8:30 p.m. near his home in Gillette when the accident happened, Gillette attorney and family friend John Daly told the Gillette News Record.
At 8:18 p.m. Friday, the Gillette Police Department received an Apple Watch distress call that someone had taken a hard fall on Morningside Drive and was not responding. Before officers arrived, someone called in to report a man lying in the roadway beside a bike, said Police Lt. Brent Wasson.
The Gillette Police Department does not release names of people involved in medical incidents, but Wasson said officers found a 77-year-old man unresponsive at the scene, and he was taken to the hospital. There was no indication that anyone else was near or involved in the accident, Wasson added.
Daly said the person who found Enzi called 911. He had broken his neck and some ribs, and was taken to the hospital and stabilized before being flown to UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland, Colorado, via air ambulance, according to a Facebook post by his three children.
Late Monday night, the former senator’s official Twitter feed posted this message: “Former Wyoming U.S. Senator Mike Enzi passed away peacefully today surrounded by his family.”
Enzi was born in Bremerton, Washington, and grew up in Thermopolis, Wyoming. He received a degree in accounting from George Washington University and went on to earn a master’s degree in retail marketing from the University of Denver in Colorado.
Enzi served in the Wyoming National Guard from 1967-73, and in 1969, he moved to Gillette with his wife, Diana, to expand his father’s shoe sales business, NZ Shoes.
His loved ones don’t recall any interest in running for office. Enzi was simply a businessman who worked hard and loved his family more than anything else.
But that all changed when, as the then-president of the Wyoming chapter of the United States Junior Chamber, he spoke at the organization’s state convention in Cody.
The event’s keynote speaker, former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., was taken aback by Enzi’s way with words, and made sure to pull him aside afterward to give him some advice.
“Ann and I were at this table with Diane and Mike,” Simpson recalled Tuesday. “When he came back to the table, I said, ‘Have you ever thought about being in politics?’ He said no, but I said, ‘Whatever party you’re in, you’re talking about your county and your city and Wyoming and the nation, you’re not talking about yourself. We need people like you.’”
Enzi seemed surprised, Simpson remembered, but perhaps nobody was more surprised than Enzi’s wife. Simpson recalled that Diana Enzi just “about ran off the road” when her husband said he’d consider going into politics.
Not long after, Enzi successfully ran for Gillette mayor in 1974.
During that time, he worked with City Council member Herb Carter, former mayor and father of current Gillette Mayor Louise CarterKing. Carter-King was just a high schooler when Enzi assumed that position, but they were neighbors – her family often babysat his three children – and the families maintained a close friendship.
So when Carter-King decided to run for mayor, she knew exactly who to call.
“I have all the letters he ever wrote me from D.C. and even from Cheyenne,” she said of her mentor. “I believe every speech I ever heard him give, he would always say that the most rewarding and hardest job he ever had was being mayor … you’re on the frontlines and you just have to roll with the punches.”
She still has many voicemails saved from the former mayor, who would often take time out of his congressional duties to call when he knew things were getting bad in Gillette.
One of her favorite stories of Enzi’s time as mayor was when a resident called his home phone one winter morning to express his anger after digging out his driveway, only to get plowed back in by a city plow. The mayor thanked him, hung up and then showed up on the man’s doorstep with a shovel.
“That is the kind of guy he was,” Carter-King said. “He didn’t talk about what he wanted to hear, he would actually do something about it, and that was kind of his motto here, just get things done.”
After his time as mayor, Enzi was elected to the Wyoming House of Representatives as a Republican in 1987 and then as a member of the Wyoming Senate in 1991. Enzi then served as U.S. senator for Wyoming for 24 years, from 1996 until he retired at the end of his fourth term in January 2021.
Just as Enzi served as a mentor to Carter-King, Simpson served as mentor to the late senator, especially when Enzi took over Simpson’s Senate seat.
“This was a man that I loved,” Simpson said. “He was too good for politics. That’s what he was. Too kind, too moral, too upright. Politics is a contact sport. … Enzi took a lot of body blows and heavy crap from people who know nothing. And he never responded, he never came back with hatred or revenge or pettiness.”
Many current and former legislators echoed Simpson’s perspective, including U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., who served with Enzi for nine years as a U.S. representative before replacing him as senator.
“Today, Wyoming mourns the loss of a giant, Mike Enzi,” Lummis said in an email statement. “He was a soft-spoken leader, but the legislative wins he delivered loudly attest to the impact of his service. At a time of increasing political incivility, Mike Enzi managed to tactfully navigate the upper chamber, producing results that will be felt for generations to come.”
She added that Wyoming has had “no greater champion” than Enzi, and that nobody worked harder to serve their constituents – evidenced by the more than 100 Enzi bills signed into law by four U.S. presidents.
“He was more than just our senior senator,” she said. “He was my friend and mentor, and I am heartbroken at his passing.”
Gov. Mark Gordon has ordered both the U.S and Wyoming flags to be lowered immediately to half-staff. They will remain at half-staff until sundown at the day of interment. Once that date has been established, the Governor’s office will send out another notification to advise when the flags will be returned to full-staff.
In a news release, the governor said he and his wife, first lady Jennie Gordon, join thousands of other Wyomingites in offering prayers and well wishes for Diana and the rest of the Enzi family.
“Mike was a friend and a dedicated public servant who cared deeply about Wyoming and its people. His leadership in the Senate was tireless and productive. He was a strong advocate for the state’s interests and was always committed to finding consensus where possible. He understood what is important for America.”
Former Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr met Enzi when she was a lobbyist fresh out of college. She recalled always being treated with respect by the then-state legislator, who was always professional, eloquent and committed to working across the aisle to get problems solved.
Later on, the pair bonded over their experiences as mayors, commiserating over how they couldn’t go to the grocery store without hearing about barking dogs or giant potholes, but also about how listening to those concerns was so crucial.
She said one of the biggest legacies he’ll leave behind is his “80/20 rule,” which was to work hard to agree on 80 percent of issues across the aisle, rather than argue over the 20 percent of issues they’ll never agree on.
“Mike Enzi and his 80/20 rule made him 100 percent of a leader,” she said.
Enzi has two daughters and one son: Amy, Emily and Brad. He also has four grandchildren: Trey and Lilly; and Megan and Allison. When he announced his retirement in May 2019, he cited his dedication to them as one of his reasons for stepping down.
“I can’t do the kind of job Diana and I have been doing for another six-year term,” Enzi said at a 2019 news conference in Gillette. “I was able to see my kids grow up before I went in [to] the Senate. Now I want some grandkid time.”
Enzi’s extra time with his grandchildren was cut short due to this accident, and that tragedy isn’t lost on Max D’Onofrio.
The former Enzi communications director said the pair often spoke about how this retirement would be about traveling places other than Washington and Wyoming, and serving their family, rather than serving the state.
But even though he didn’t get that extra time, D’Onofrio said Enzi’s kind heart, sly humor and wise personal philosophies will live on in all the people whose lives he touched.
For example, D’Onofrio plans to continue Enzi’s tradition of writing a book report after every book he reads – though his might just be a paragraph compared to Enzi’s full page – to fully embrace every author’s message.
“If he had time for it, then I must have time for it,” D’Onofrio said. “He was very mindful of remembering things in your life and not just moving on from them. I think a lot of people just consume and move on, but he was very mindful about cherishing the things in your life.”
That’s why Enzi was so good at his job, D’Onofrio continued, because he was always present and appreciated the little things in life – chief among those things being fly fishing and the peanut butter chocolate cake his wife made every year on his birthday.
D’Onofrio worked with Enzi for eight years, working his way up from an intern right out of college to a media assistant, then press secretary and ultimately communications director.
He said he truly enjoyed every day in that office – which he recognizes is a rare professional experience – and he attributes this to Enzi’s family-centric focus.
“I’m married because of someone I met in his office,” he said. “Most of my friends are people I met in his office. It was a family, and that’s how we talk about it, the Enzi family. He taught me to be more mindful and caring and really listen to what other people have to say before you react.”
All his staffers tried every day to follow the mission statement Enzi himself was committed to, a mission he learned from his mother: Do what’s right, do your best and treat others as they wish to be treated. His approach to leadership is one of his greatest lasting legacies, D’Onofrio said.
“‘Not a show horse, more of a workhorse’ is how he liked to describe himself,” he said. “He was the same guy behind the curtain as he was in front of it. He was voted by The Washingtonian as the nicest senator, and I think that’s how most people knew him.”