Olene Walker, Utah's first female governor, dies at 85

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Posted: Nov 28, 2015 7:31 PM
Olene Walker, Utah's first female governor, dies at 85

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Olene Smith Walker, who prioritized education as the first and only female governor of Utah and later established an institute to help students pursue public service careers, died Saturday at 85 in Salt Lake City.

Walker died from natural causes, former spokeswoman Amanda Covington said.

Considered one of the highest profile women in Utah politics, the Republican served as lieutenant governor for 11 years.

She was elevated to governor when Gov. Mike Leavitt left in 2003 to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. Leavitt remembered her as a "trailblazer" for women and a friend to the downtrodden.

"Throughout the nearly 11 years we served together she was a loyal partner, an example of personal goodness and devoted friend," Leavitt said. "Her disposition was perpetually optimistic, her demeanor dignified, and her tone kind."

As governor, Walker sometimes differed from her fellow Republicans on issues such as vouchers for private schools. She had vetoed a voucher bill, saying it would undercut funding for cash-strapped public schools.

Walker established the Read with a Child Early Literacy Initiative, encouraging adults to read with children at least 20 minutes a day. Her goal was to make sure students could read at grade level by the time they completed third grade.

She also tried to balance promoting Utah's economy while preserving its rural beauty. She enlisted a task force created by Leavitt to find ways to restore the status of wilderness after outdoor retailers threatened to yank trade shows in response to settlements with the U.S. Interior Department that eliminated wilderness protection for nearly 6 million acres of federal land in the state.

It wasn't until two months before her party's May 2004 nominating convention that she decided to run for re-election. Meanwhile, her rivals had been building their campaigns and Walker ended up finishing fourth in an eight-way contest for the GOP nomination.

It was the first time a standing Utah governor failed to win a party nomination in 48 years.

Gov. Gary Herbert praised Walker as a fearless champion of education.

"Wherever she went, she broke down barriers so future generations could follow her lead," Herbert said in a statement. "Her legacy will be appropriately remembered in the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University."

Herbert also ordered government buildings to lower their flags to half-staff in Walker's honor until Thursday.

Raised in Ogden, Walker served in the Utah House of Representatives from 1981 until 1989. As majority whip, she helped pass several bills including the creation of Utah's "Rainy Day Fund" that functions as a safety net for state programs during economic downturns.

Elected lieutenant governor in 1993, Walker oversaw initiatives including a health care reform task force that led to the state Children's Health Insurance Program.

In 2012, she established the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University. The nonpartisan institute helps students who are pursuing careers in public service and facilitates community forums on current events. Walker spoke out against negative campaigning at the institute's opening, the Deseret News reported (http://bit.ly/1OxdzPY).

"When I was in the Legislature, you didn't feel that negative feeling about the other party. In fact, we usually worked together," Walker said at the time. "Think how that has changed in a relatively short time."

In August 2014, Walker was named to the newly-formed Utah Debate Commission. The coalition of former politicians, educators and news media ensures there are debates in each election cycle for statewide and federal offices.

Walker is survived by her husband, Myron, seven children, 25 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.