Utah’s Only Female Governor Olene Walker Honored as Part of ‘Women of Weber’ to Mark 100th Anniversary of Suffrage
February 26, 2020
OGDEN, Utah – The complex history of Utah’s struggle for female suffrage is filled with inspiring stories of women who had the grit and tenacity to break down gender-based political and social barriers. In 1896, for example, Martha Hughes Cannon, a Salt Lake City physician and Democrat, defeated her Republican husband, Angus, to become the first woman in the United States elected to a state senate. During her term, Cannon sponsored bills promoting women’s rights, public health and sanitation.
But Cannon’s unconventional rise to political power is by no means a singular feat. Weber College alumna Olene S. Walker is also considered a legend in the annals of state politics. To say that Walker broke through a glass ceiling on Utah’s Capitol Hill is categorically incorrect; she actually shattered several glass ceilings there. Her high-profile resume includes eight years in the Utah House of Representatives, including one term as majority whip, during which she helped craft Utah’s acclaimed rainy-day fund. In 1993, Utah voters elected her their first female lieutenant governor. Walker held the post for 10 years until Gov. Michael Leavitt resigned to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. On Nov. 5, 2003, shortly before her 73rd birthday, Walker made history, yet again, by becoming Utah’s first female chief executive officer. Ironically, she was also the first Utah governor to be sworn into office by Christine M. Durham, the Utah Supreme Court’s first female chief justice. Walker’s term as governor ended on Jan. 3, 2005.
Walker’s circuitous journey from the farmlands of west Weber County to the governor’s mansion, is the second of 12 inspiring stories to be spotlighted this year at Weber State University.
Weber State Archives, Stewart Library Special Collections, and Museums at Union Station have collaborated to present “Beyond Suffrage: A Century of Northern Utah Women Making History,” a multifaceted exhibit that examines the transformative impact of women in Northern Utah. The project views the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote, as a catalyst for female involvement in the growth and development of the local region. “Beyond Suffrage,” which opens at Union Station on March 14, explores the 50 years preceding the amendment (1870-1920), and the decades that followed. It also chronicles how local women continue to make headlines.
The exhibit encompasses multiple platforms, including internet content, photography, lectures, music and visual art. Details can be found at beyondsuffrage.org.
Women of Weber One component of “Beyond Suffrage” is the “Women of Weber” project, which focuses exclusively on extraordinary women whose service, accomplishments, careers and philanthropy have enriched the lives of Weber State students. Each month, these women’s photos and stories will be on display outside Archives’ offices in the Stewart Library.
Profile of Olene S. Walker (1930-2015) Raised in an era when marriage, motherhood and moving up a career ladder didn’t always mix, Olene Smith Walker was a “working mom” before that term was a catchphrase. She may not have been the first Utah woman to balance education, family, career, service and self-fulfillment, but, like an Olympic figure skater who nails a triple Salchow in competition, Olene managed to make it look easy.
From Farm Girl to Social Butterfly Olene, the second child born to Ogden educator Thomas Ole “T.O.” Smith and Nina Hadley Smith, grew up during America’s Great Depression on 130 acres of farmland in Wilson, Utah, a chunk of Weber County now known as West Haven. She spent much of her youth cavorting with her three rowdy brothers. “I often played football and baseball with them,” she said in a 2012 interview for Stewart Library Special Collections’ oral history project. “I remember my mother once said to me, ‘Olene, I don’t care if you play football, but you can’t force your friends to play because they always end up crying.’”
While honing skills for the rough-and-tumble world of contact sports, the Smith children also ran the family farm when their father spent extended periods of time in California, working on his Ph.D. In addition to her aptitude for athletics and agriculture, Olene had a passion for reading. In fact, she learned to read before attending kindergarten.
At Weber High School, Olene acquired abundant social skills. “I kind of felt like the country cousin coming to the city,” she said looking back. “If I had to do it over again, I would stick primarily to the academics and really prepare for college. But instead, I was involved in almost everything you could run for.” Sometimes, Olene and her friends would succumb to the lure of Ogden’s notorious 25th Street. “Often you could see people who’d had a little too much to drink coming out of the bars,” she recalled. “Now, people-watching sounds pretty boring to me in this day and age, but back then, with a car load of friends, it was rather fun.”
Weber College and Beyond Olene excelled academically. She graduated from high school in 1949, and was offered a debate scholarship to Weber College. She joined Otyokwa sorority and helped erect the iconic stone wall that greets visitors approaching the Ogden campus from Harrison Boulevard. “My claim to fame at Weber was that lasting wall,” she revealed. “It was there for several years before anything else was built.”
Another Weber College experience broadened Olene’s worldview and tested her strength of character. While on a road trip through Southern Utah, the Weber College debate squad stopped at a café in St. George. One of Olene’s teammates, a former Ogden High School student body officer, was a young African American woman. As the students seated themselves at a table, a waitress approached. Spewing a hateful racial slur, she indicated that she would not serve a black person. Without hesitation, Olene and the rest of the group walked out of the restaurant. “I didn’t even know about racial issues,” Olene later remarked. “I didn’t even recognize it, but I knew that it wasn’t fair to that individual, and I am so glad that we did react in that manner.”
After Weber, Olene attended Brigham Young University, where she was elected student body vice president, met her future husband, Myron Walker (as she waved from a float in a homecoming parade), and picked up two bachelor’s degrees — one, in political science, the other, in secondary education. The couple married in late March of 1954, while Olene worked on her master’s degree in political theory at Stanford University. She would later acquire a doctoral degree in education administration at the University of Utah.
A Passion for Parenting and Politics The Walkers moved 13 times in the first 11 years of marriage. Although Olene’s doctors predicted she would never be able to have children, she proved them wrong — seven times.
After stints in Albuquerque and Denver, the Walker family returned to Salt Lake City and set up permanent roots. While working part time as vice president of Country Crisp Foods, her family business, Olene became increasingly active in her community. She co-chaired Salt Lake City’s Block 57 redevelopment project, and was asked to chair a study of elementary education in the Salt Lake School District.
After several supporters encouraged Olene, a lifelong Republican, to go after the Utah House of Representatives seat being vacated by fellow Republican Genevieve Atwood, Olene signed up on the last day of eligibility. Then she dashed home to look up the district boundaries. “Why I didn’t do it before, I don’t know,” she said. “I found, at that time, I was in a district that was the third most Democratic district in the state.” She credited her improbable victory to hard work and two secret weapons — motherhood and the PTA.
Campaign Secret Weapons Olene claimed that having seven children helped her win her first election. “I would knock on doors and a child would answer the door and they’d say, ‘It’s Nena’s mom or it’s Lori’s mom or it’s Tom’s mom,’” she recounted. Equally advantageous, she found, was serving as PTA president at three different schools. Olene asked two history teachers if they would give their students extra credit for working on her campaign. They agreed as long as she promised to discuss political issues with the students. Every evening at 5 p.m., Olene walked with a few students on one side of a street, while other children canvassed the opposite side. They would say, “Olene Walker is right over there. Do you have questions?” Afterward, over pizza and pop in the Walker’s family room, Olene and the students discussed relevant issues and events.
Climbing the Hill Once elected, Olene asked Gov. Norman Bangerter what she could do to become a successful lawmaker. He recommended getting to know the state budget. “Very few legislators do that,” Olene said. “The fact that I could often answer fiscal questions, I think, was the reason I was appointed as chair of one of the appropriation committees.”
It didn’t take Olene long to pinpoint who wielded the most power on Capitol Hill. “The ultimate decisions are made by the majority party’s leadership,” she said. “So, I was determined to be part of that leadership.” After two terms in the House, she ran for assistant majority whip, and won. She was elected majority whip in her fourth term.
At that time, there were only six women in the Utah House and one woman in the Senate. Olene admitted that infiltrating the male-dominated legislative environment was challenging. Citing one example, she said that as majority whip, she was expected to participate in private discussions away from the legislative offices. Because she lived within walking distance of the Capitol, Olene volunteered to host many of these activities at her home. “I would fix something quick, either dinner or breakfast,” she recalled. This routine went on until House Speaker Nolan Karras abruptly ended it. According to Olene, Karras one day announced: “This is not right; we make Olene fix meals for us in addition to her being in leadership. We meet away from the office to get away from stress, but, instead, we’ve created her greater stress.” After that, Olene never fed the group again. She said she considered the incident “evidence of progress.”
Additional, albeit cringeworthy, “evidence of progress” was manifest at a legislative hearing regarding higher education. When Olene asked a fiscal question, the head of a government agency responded with a question of his own: “What’s a nice lady like you doing worrying about money?” Olene said she scanned the room for audience reaction and spotted half of the men using their hands to cover their faces in embarrassment. Instead of lobbing an explosive retort, she replied calmly: “With what you’re presenting, some of the ‘nice ladies’ have to worry about the budget.”
Tough Loss — Triumphant Return In 1988, Olene, who had her heart set on becoming house speaker, lost her seat to Democrat Paula Julander. Olene called the loss disappointing, but not devastating, and it wasn’t long before she started entertaining the notion of running for the U.S. Congress. While contemplating, Olene was asked by Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike Leavitt to run as his lieutenant governor. Before saying yes, Olene told Leavitt that she wasn’t interested in performing secondary tasks; she wanted to be directly involved in policy and state decisions. Leavitt agreed. As lieutenant governor, Olene presided over the state election process, sat in on crucial budget hearings, and was heavily involved with the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.
Making History Again In July of 2003, Olene was among the few “insiders” who knew that Gov. Leavitt was planning to resign. “But, Mike felt that it was an advantage for no one to know it until he was actually appointed,” she said. “So, no one talked about it, and that was difficult because I felt I needed to be organizing.”
When finally sworn in as Utah’s 15th and first woman governor, Olene hit the ground running, keenly aware of being a role model for future female candidates. “I had a strong feeling that I needed to prove that a woman could be governor,” she said. “I immediately enumerated the fourteen issues I’d selected to be accomplished during my time as governor.”
Olene wasn’t afraid to lock horns with other Republicans over certain issues. She brazenly vetoed a private school voucher bill, claiming it would undercut financing for public schools. She worked to grow Utah’s economy without harming the state’s natural resources or pristine beauty. And when it came to funding an early student literacy initiative, she was ferocious. The program, which urged adults to read with children at least 20 minutes a day, required $30 million in state funding to place reading specialists in grades K-3 at Utah public schools. Robert “Bob” Hunter, director of the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University, says the eventual passage of the measure proved Olene’s proficiency at playing political hardball. “When she proposed the early grade reading program to the Legislature, some leaders said, ‘We don’t have money for that,’” Hunter remembers. “Her clear response was, ‘If you don’t have early grade reading in the budget, I will veto the entire state budget.’” In the end, the reading program was a triumph. Part of it still exists in the form of the Ken Garff Automotive Group’s “Road to Success” and “Keys to Success” programs.
Stunning Defeat Choosing to focus on passing the state budget, Olene did not decide to run for governor until two months before her party’s May 2004 nominating convention. Meanwhile, her political rivals had been bolstering their campaigns. Despite her 87% voter approval rating, Olene ended up finishing fourth in an eight-way contest. It was the first time in 48 years that an incumbent Utah governor failed to win a party nomination.
Walker Legacies Although her gubernatorial career ended on a subdued note, Olene will be forever remembered for her unwavering dedication to public service. In 2012, she stated: “I think my legacy is — I hope it is — that I’m an individual who looks at what is right and good for the State of Utah, rather than a politician that just does what he or she thinks will get them elected the next time.”
Also praiseworthy are Olene’s exhaustive efforts to encourage more Utah women to run for public office. “I really want to stress the fact that those of us who have been in the Legislature have an obligation to do more than we are doing to encourage capable people to run — again, the emphasis would be on women,” she said. She strongly believed that women bring a different perspective to the legislative process, and their presence should be welcomed. “Not that women are any better or more capable,” she argued, “but if there is a choice and you feel that two [candidates] are equal, in the name of diversity, vote for the woman.”
When Olene was Lt. Gov., she co-chaired the healthcare task force that created Utah’s Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). As a state leader, she championed foster children and felt that helping them succeed and get into higher education was one of her greatest accomplishments. Olene also spearheaded the effort that led to the creation of the Department of Workforce Services; in fact, the main workforce building now bears her name.
In 2012, Olene left an indelible mark on Weber State University by donating her private collection of papers to Stewart Library and establishing the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service. Currently, the Walker Institute recruits and trains students for internships in local, state and national government offices, as well as nonprofit organizations. It promotes civic education for students and community members, and encourages the civil exchange of political ideas. Throughout the year, the institute sponsors public forums, debates, town hall meetings, workshops, and other events involving politics and economic development.
Throughout her life, Olene embraced her Ogden roots. “I’m very proud to see how Weber has grown from the campus that I went to — one square block in downtown Ogden — to a beautiful, magnificent campus in the foothills,” she said not long before her death in 2015 at age 85. Although she has been gone for nearly five years, Utah’s indomitable first, and so far only, female governor is still making headlines and history. In 2019 for example, the Granite School District Board of Education voted to name a new school in her honor. Olene Walker Elementary School became the first neighborhood school named for a woman in the district’s 115-year history. It would appear that all those social skills Olene cultivated in high school and college still pay off; she remains one of the state’s most popular and beloved public figures.
To learn more about Olene Walker, you can listen to her Stewart Library oral history interview or read the transcript which is held in Special Collections.
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