SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah's political leaders and several hundred mourners gathered Friday to remember Olene Smith Walker as a tough, warm and straightforward woman who served as the state's first and only female governor.
She was considered a pioneer for women in politics in the conservative state, remembered as a fierce fighter for education not only while serving as the state's chief executive, but as its first female lieutenant governor and as a state lawmaker.
"This is one of the real great figures who blazed a path, not just for women, but for everyone," former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt said.
Walker died Saturday in Salt Lake City from natural causes. She was 85.
Leavitt, Gov. Gary Herbert, former Gov. Jon Huntsman and Sen. Mike Lee were among the current and former public officials attending Friday funeral services for Walker in Salt Lake City. Her seven children all spoke at the ceremony before a police motorcade accompanied her casket to the Salt Lake City Cemetery, where she would be buried Friday afternoon.
The Republican served as the state's lieutenant governor for 11 years and was elevated to the governor's office in 2003, when then-Gov. Mike Leavitt left to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush.
While in the governor's office, Walker sometimes took a more middle-of-the-road stance than her fellow Republicans on issues such as private school vouchers. She vetoed a voucher bill out of concern it would suction funds from cash-strapped public schools.
Lynne Ward, Walker's former deputy chief of staff and a longtime friend, remembered the former governor as a smart, straightforward hard worker who could put on pantyhose while driving her red sports car and delivered "steely-eyed charm" in her political interactions.
"She called it like it was and would tell someone straight up that their request was lacking," she said.
She enlisted a state task force with finding ways to restore the status of wilderness in Utah and created a child reading initiative.
"One of her fondest memories was being described by a young boy as the governor who made us read," her son Bryan Walker said during the service.
Walker decided to run for re-election only two months before her party's 2004 nominating convention, a time when her GOP rivals were already in the thick of their campaigns.
She finished fourth in an eight-way contest for the Republican nod, marking the first time in 48 years a standing Utah governor failed to win a party nomination. She left office in 2005.
In 2012, she established the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University. The institute helps students pursue public service careers.
She also advocated to raise awareness about pulmonary fibrosis, scarring of the lungs that makes breathing difficult. She was diagnosed with the disease more than a decade ago.
Her family remembered her Friday as a devoted mother and wife who was passionate about her Mormon faith and served many roles in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Raised in Ogden, Walker served in Utah's 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.
She graduated from Brigham Young University and earned a master's degree from Stanford University and a doctorate from the University of Utah.
Walker is survived by her husband, Myron, seven children, 25 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren.