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Olene Walker, "one of Utah's finest public servants," Utah's first and only female governor, dies at age 85

SALT LAKE CITY — Olene Walker, the only woman to serve as Utah's governor, died Saturday due to causes incident to age. She was 85.

In her eight years as a legislator, 11 years as the state’s second-in-command and 426 days as governor, Walker developed a reputation as a trailblazing lawmaker who led with grit and charisma.

"I honestly don't know of a single person who does not have a high regard for her," said former Gov. Mike Leavitt, who recruited her as his running mate in 1992. "That's a tribute to the tone of her personality, the genuineness of her concern — she was a friend to everybody, but especially the downtrodden."

On Saturday, Gov. Gary Herbert authorized flags to be lowered to half-staff until sunset Thursday.

"On behalf of all Utahns, we express our gratitude for the sacrifice and leadership of one of Utah's finest public servants," Herbert said in a statement.

A number of Utah political leaders also released statements about Walker on Saturday, including former governor Jon Huntsman Jr., members of Utah's congressional delegation and Utah State Senate President Wayne Niederhauser.

In a statement, Sen. Orrin Hatch said Walker "truly paved the way for women in government in Utah."

"Throughout her life she displayed great integrity, determination, strength, and wisdom," Hatch said.

Colleagues remembered Walker, who served as governor from Nov. 5, 2003 to Jan. 3, 2005, as approachable and kind and possessed of limitless energy, despite assuming office in her mid-70s — the oldest governor in the nation at the time.

While in office, she championed education and wasn't afraid of stirring up the Legislature to do so.

Walker gained the wrath of some conservatives when she vetoed an early effort at vouchers for private schools. She sparred with legislators again over an early reading program, threatening to veto the state budget proposal unless lawmakers came up with funding for it — which they did.

Her pragmatism, humility and sense of humor made her well-respected on both sides of the aisle.

“Even though I was a Democrat, it didn’t matter,” said Meghan Holbrook, the former chairwoman of the state Democratic Party. “She was strategic, she was smart, she was witty, she was tough. She did politics with grace and compassion and great good will — all in high heels.”

Walker left office with an 87 percent approval rating.

Walker assumed the role of governor after Leavitt resigned to head the Environmental Protection Agency in 2003. Prior to that she served as lieutenant governor for a decade — the longest tenure of any lieutenant governor in Utah.

Walker had a rural charm that led some colleagues in the Legislature to refer to her as "Aunt Bea," a reference to a motherly character in the 1960s "Andy Griffith" TV show.

"We had a joke, she and I," said Carol McNamara, the director of the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University. "She would tell me about someone and she would say, 'She’s a good friend of mine.’ And then she would realize that she says that all the time. And my response was always that I think it’s true — she had more good friends and she inspired so much admiration and respect across the political spectrum in Utah."

Walker was a Utah woman through and through. Raised on a farm in Weber County, the girl who grew up milking cows, thinning sugar beets and hauling hay went on to earn a master’s degree from Stanford University and a doctorate from the University of Utah.

Friends said that even as lieutenant governor, Walker was so humble she refused to use the driver offered to her. Holbrook recalled seeing Walker walking down the street toward the Little America Hotel, where she was supposed to give a speech.

“I said, ‘What are you doing, lieutenant governor?’ and she said, ‘My car has a flat tire and I didn’t want to call the highway patrol, so will you give me a ride?’” said Holbrook, laughing. "And that was so her."

Before her political career, Walker was a homemaker, a mother of seven children and a partner in her husband Myron’s successful snack food business.

Even then, she was known for being a tireless worker. As a public servant, Walker was known to work 19-hour days and joked that she dried her hair by sticking her head out of the car window on her way to work.

Despite her popularity with the public, Walker didn't win enough votes at the Utah Republican Convention in 2004 for her reelection bid, passed over in favor of Jon Huntsman Jr. and Nolan Karras. Some believed her tough stances on education and moderate politics as governor hurt her reelection bid.

As her political career ended, she told the Deseret News, “I’ll just be a grandmother, go down to St. George and play some golf.”

The former governor did more than that.

She served a mission with her husband in New York City for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for two years. At 80 years old, she was serving as Primary president in the Bloomington 7th Ward.

The Utah Debate Commission Board, which Walker co-chaired after it was formed in 2013, also released a statement about her passing.

"She will be remembered as a passionate advocate for educating citizens about their government, but also as a friend to all," read the statement from the executive committee.

In her later years, Walker turned her attention to encouraging students and women to get engaged in politics, creating the institute at Weber State University that bears her name: The Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service.

McNamara, the director, called Walker "among the most impressive human beings with whom I have been associated." She added that Walker's involvement is what inspired her to join as director.

"She's larger than life in so many ways," said McNamara. "I think she's often the smartest person in the room."

In a statement, Jackie Biskupski — set to become Salt Lake City's second female mayor — called Walker "a trailblazing woman in Utah politics who made our state a better place by setting an example of civility and kindness that should be the hallmarks of public service."

In her final years, friends said Walker seemed to have more energy than others — serving on a dozen boards and continuing to advocate for causes such as education, affordable housing and public lands.

Leavitt said that was just like Walker: Always looking forward, not back.

“She was a person of great stature,” said Leavitt, “whose feet did not leave the ground.”


Twitter: DaphneChen_