By Arie Dekker
In Park Valley, a little ranching town in northern Utah, Jami Palmer and her lifelong friend, Melissa Veth, used to gorge themselves on dough while their homemade Butterscotch Delight cookies baked in the oven. The girls were usually too full to eat by the time the cookies cooled. To free up some space in their tummies, they would try bouncing on the trampoline.
“It”s interesting to see how two girls born in the same circumstances could end up in such different places 26 years later,” Palmer said.
While her best friend got married and started a family, Palmer faced a sequence of unexpected challenges and opportunities that led her to her current job as executive assistant to Gov. Jon Huntsman.
When she was 12, Palmer discovered a lump on her knee that was later diagnosed as a rapidly growing bone cancer. She endured 25 chemotherapy treatments and a bone transplant.
“Cancer was a crossroads in my life,” Palmer said. “It”s not something that I asked for. It”s [certainly] not something that I wanted – especially when I was sick and baldheaded and being called a boy – but it definitely changed my life.”
Her best friend remembered Palmer”s strength and positive attitude during her cancer treatment and recovery.
“She probably strengthened me more than I strengthened her,”
She said Palmer would come over to visit often, and, as soon as she walked in the door, she would toss her wig across the room, happy to be rid of it. While losing one”s hair would be devastating for most teenage girls, Veth said, Palmer made the most of it.
Palmer said, “[Overcoming cancer] made me very focused on whatever opportunities I have afforded to me [and] making the most of them.”
When the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Utah offered to grant her one wish, Palmer surprised the organization by asking to be its spokeswoman.
“Nobody else before or since has made that wish,” said Christine Sharer, CEO of the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Utah.
During middle school, Palmer traveled once or twice a month to schools and events around the country, encouraging children and teenagers to face and overcome their challenges.
Sharer said she remembered when, after Palmer had spoken to thousands of students about her struggles, she first saw her address an audience without getting tearful. At that moment, Sharer said, she knew Palmer had fully conquered her cancer.
Palmer”s mother, Leilani, said she and her daughter used to watch Miss America pageants on TV. She said Palmer would don her mother”s high heels and wrap a blanket around her shoulders to imitate the beauty queens she was watching.
Later, she would join their ranks.
After competing in pageants for three years, Palmer was crowned Miss Utah in 2000 and participated in the Miss America pageant – this time in her own heels.
Now, with long brown hair and a fashionable business suit, Palmer assists the governor with scheduling and other matters.
She originally turned down an offer to work on Huntsman”s campaign in 2003 because she was pursuing a career in broadcasting.
“I was bound and determined to be the next Peter Jennings,” she said.
Between studying broadcasting at BYU and interning at Channel 4, Palmer was a natural reporter, said BYU communications professor and Channel 4 reporter Bob Walz.
“She was the caliber that could have gone very far,” Walz said. “She had the brain, she had the look, she had the desire.”
In spite of her drive for reporting, when Huntsman”s campaign manager again invited Palmer to join the campaign, she said it just felt right. After Huntsman won the governorship, she began working as his executive assistant.
She shares an office with Assistant to the Chief of Staff Fran Stultz, who said Gov. Huntsman bounces ideas off of Palmer and trusts her as a confidant.
“I”m in awe of all that she”s done in a short amount of time,” Stultz said.
But Palmer is far from finished. She recently began working on a master”s degree in public administration at the University of Utah. She said she has many dreams, from becoming a spokeswoman for a political figure to swimming across the Mississippi River to playing piano at Carnegie Hall.
And she said she admires her best friend, Melissa Veth, for being a wonderful mother of two.
“Our lives, from two girls who grew up in Park Valley, have gone such different tracks,” she said. “My biggest goal in life is just to become the best person that I can be … and utilize all the talents and skills and qualities that I have and maximize those in motherhood, in career, in church, in life.”