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Former Gov. Olene Walker remembered as 'devoted to the public good'

MILLCREEK — Olene Walker, Utah's first and, so far, only woman to serve as governor, was remembered Friday for a life "devoted to the public good" by her family, friends and church leaders.

"One of her fondest memories was being described by a young boy as, 'The governor who made us read,'" Bryan Walker, one of her seven children, said during funeral services at the LDS Church Canyon Rim Stake Center.

But Olene Walker, who served as lieutenant governor for a decade before becoming governor in 2003 after then-Gov. Mike Leavitt resigned to join President George W. Bush's administration, also has a tough side.

Lynne Ward, her deputy chief of staff and a friend for more than two decades, recalled how Walker stood up to lawmakers and pushed through her elementary school reading program by threatening to veto the state budget.

"She educated the Legislature that she was serious. The reading program got funded and is still in place today," Ward said.

And while Walker wasn't successful in her bid to be elected governor, Ward said she finished her term "as vigorously as ever."

Daughter Nena Slighting told the audience that included all three of Utah's living governors that her mother may not have appeared formidable, but she was "extremely tough and competitive."

Those qualities surfaced even playing card games with her grandchildren, Slighting said, describing how her mother would stay up all night if necessary to emerge the winner.

Another son, LDS Bishop Thomas Walker, said he learned from his mother to be strong and tough, and never go against his values.

"What a lesson," said Thomas Walker, who presided over the services.

Bryan Walker said his mother's determination made her "the fiercest woman I ever met. This may come as a surprise to those who knew her as an empathetic, gregarious, caring woman who exuded nothing but warmth."

He said her most important legacy is to young women, including her granddaughters, as an example "of a woman who was fierce and courageous in pursuit of a rich and fulfilling life without barriers or limitations."

That included showing her emotions.

Daughter Lori Waltman recalled how her mother could be counted on to have "big tears rolling down her face" reading a sad story. As governor, Olene Walker would make sure members of her security detail had dinner when she worked late, Waltman said.

President Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, recalled how then-Lt. Gov. Walker advised a foreign government official that he needed to listen to the gospel.

"She was brilliant," President Nelson said.

He also read a letter from the LDS Church's First Presidency to Walker's husband, Myron, expressing sympathy at her passing and celebrating her life of service to the church and community.

"Her life was devoted to the public good and well-being of her native state and her fellow citizens," the letter stated, adding that her "example of citizen service, in and out of public office, will long be remembered as worthy of emulation."

Before the service, Leavitt told reporters Walker "blazed a path, not just for women, but for everyone. She was a great Utahn and needs to be remembered as one of the real foundations of this state over a course of a century."

Leavitt praised her for creating the state's Rainy Day Fund during her eight years in the Legislature, as well as work in the executive branch that led to the state's Department of Workforce Services.

"She had her own way. When I had a problem at the Legislature, I'd often call Olene and say, 'Go upstairs and see if you can take care of this.' And sure enough, she'd come back and she would have shamed them into something good," Leavitt said.

Gov. Gary Herbert, who was lieutenant governor under Walker's successor, now former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., said she will be missed.

"She stood very tall on education," Herbert said. "But her legacy is in many areas. It's not just as a legislator. It's not just as lieutenant governor, not just as governor, a trailblazer, a leader in many different areas."

Walker, he said, was also "a great wife, mother, grandmother, sister, friend. I mean, she was the total package. She had it all, and all of us — men and women — can learn from Olene's leadership."

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