Hilary Robertson / 23 September, 2015


By Dan Harrie, Salt Lake Tribune 

Utah’s only female governor started out watching the recent Republican presidential debate by pulling for the only woman on the stage, Carly Fiorina, but that changed before the three-hour marathon ended.

“She didn’t have a sense of humor sufficient to really be effective,” says Olene Walker.

Walker would know, having a good one herself.

And, using her logic, maybe that’s what helped make her so effective that — more than a decade after her 14 months as the state’s chief executive — people still fondly recall her tenure, still regretting that despite her towering popularity with the general public, she was unceremoniously dumped by Republican Party delegates.

Camille Anthony, a protege who remains close to Walker, says to this day people come up to her in the grocery store and say, “Oh, I wish she could have been our governor for longer. Man, I really wish we would have had an opportunity to vote for her again.’”

She hears it from men and women.

“It’s not a gender thing, I think it’s just a real respect thing,” says Anthony.

YWCA of Utah will show its respect Friday, naming Walker recipient of its Mary Schubach McCarthey Lifetime Achievement Award.

Walker, who turns 85 in November and has health issues, doesn’t drive anymore. But she says she’ll be at the YWCA luncheon in Salt Lake City to accept the honor.

“Isn’t that nice? I may have to walk, but I’ll attend. I’ll catch a bus.”

She’s joking.

Making history • Walker is hoping that her distinction as the only female chief executive in state history is one that doesn’t stand long. She’s been active in efforts to encourage more women to get involved in politics at all levels.

In addition to being the first female governor (and having the shortest term of that office), she is believed to be the only Ph.D. ever to hold the post.

She earned her doctorate in education administration from the University of Utah in 1986, the same year a son graduated from medical school and her youngest daughter, a daughter-in-law and son-in-law all graduated from college.

Walker, after raising seven children, spent years writing her dissertation after full days of work — she owned and ran a snack-food company with her husband, Myron — and fulfilling her duties as a member of the Utah House of Representatives (1981-1989). She grabbed a few hours of sleep from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m.

It wasn’t enough, she concedes, but it showed her priorities.

The daughter of a classroom teacher and a school superintendent, she believed in education.

It was her No. 1 issue during her four terms in the House, her decade as lieutenant governor and continuing in the state’s top office. Her biggest showdown as governor with lawmakers was over her insistence of funding an early reading initiative in schools.

Though some lawmakers privately referred to her as “Aunt Bea,” they found out behind closed doors just how tough a negotiator she could be when she threatened a budget veto unless they came through on her reading program.

She says now it was no idle threat ­— she was perfectly willing to flex her veto muscle. “I told them I meant it, and they knew it,” she says. “I sort of tell people when I’m kidding, but I was very serious and they knew it.”

Walker got her reading initiative, half the $30 million funded by the state and the other half from local sources.

Former House Speaker Nolan Karras, whose time in the Legislature overlapped Walker’s, said her disarming persona often gave her an edge in achieving political goals.

“She kind of gave you this impression of a sweet lady that was sort of disorganized, and then you just watched her clean the clock of people who took her for granted,” Karras says. “She’s absolutely first class.”

Ready • Former Gov. Mike Leavitt says that during the 11 years she served as his lieutenant governor, Walker was “unceasingly loyal” and yet “always willing to tell it to me straight.”

He recalls vividly the day in 2003 when he informed his political partner that President George W. Bush would soon announce Leavitt’s nomination as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency more than halfway through the then-governor’s third term.

“I asked her to join me in my private office and confided that my appointment to the president’s Cabinet was imminent. I told her how proud I felt that she would become Utah’s first female governor. At the end of the conversation, we gave each other a hug and she simply said, ‘I’ll be ready.’ We both knew that was true,” says Leavitt.

She took the oath on Nov. 5 that year. She was 72.

As a lifelong Democrat and one-time head of the Utah Democratic Party, Meghan Holbrook was a political rival of Walker’s. But she also was a neighbor and friend.

“I think she was a wonderful example of a woman who was educated, politically sophisticated, well-mannered, thoughtful and did everything in high heels — and that’s harder,” says Holbrook.

A trademark of Walker’s time in office was reading to kids. She’d read to them when she visited schools, she’d read to groups of Scouts touring the Capitol, she’d read to children and young relatives of staff members visiting the governor’s office.

Holbrook’s employer, Zions Bank, donated crates of Dr. Seuss books to use in schools, and she remembers attending one of Walker’s classroom visits.

“One of her favorites was ‘The Places You’ll Go,’ ” Holbrook recalls. “She sat down with the kids on one of these tiny little chairs and she read this Dr. Seuss book. And one of the little kids said, ‘Well, where are you going to go?’ And she said, ‘I’m the governor.’ And he said, ‘Are you going to do anything else?’ And she laughed.”

Walker says her sense of humor has served her well in the political arena and in life.

“People need to know what they need to take seriously and what they need to laugh off,” says Walker. “People feel better with a sense of humor.”

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