Former Utah Governor Olene S. Walker dies at age 85
(KUTV) Olene Walker, Utah's first and only female governor, has died. She was 85.
Walker, the state's 15th governor, died from natural causes Saturday morning in Salt Lake City. She served as governor from November 2003 until January 2005, following Gov. Michael O. Leavitt.
"She was really the total package," Gov. Gary Herbert told 2News. "She excelled at virtually everything she tried, and she's going to be missed."
Born in 1930, Walker's long political career included eight years in the Utah House of Representatives, where she also served as majority whip, and a decade as the state's first female lieutenant governor.
"[She] will be remembered as a stateswoman, trailblazer for women, educator, loving mother and a friend to all, especially the downtrodden," Leavitt said in a statement. "Throughout the nearly 11 years we served together she was a loyal partner, an example of personal goodness and devoted friend. Her disposition was perpetually optimistic, her demeanor dignified and her tone kind. Olene Walker deserves a hallowed place in Utah history and will forever be remembered and missed by her family and friends."
While working with Leavitt, Walker spearheaded initiatives spanning education programs and budget security measures to healthcare reform and workforce development. She led the Healthcare Reform Task Force, which lead to the establishment of the Children's Health Insurance Program and affordable healthcare for Utah's youth.
She was also instrumental in the Department of Workforce Services and bolstered volunteer efforts at Salt Lake City homeless shelters during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
While serving in the Utah House, Walker helped create Utah's Rainy Day Fund "to protect state programs during times of economic downturn," according to a press release from Amanda Covington, Walker former communications deputy. It was, according to Covington, what "Walker considered it her most important legislative accomplishment."
Walker also chaired the National Conference of Lieutenant Governors and was president of the National Association of Secretaries of State.
"We celebrate the life of Gov. Walker not only because of the legacy she leaves behind as Utah's first female governor, but also because of her many accomplishments while in that office," said Gov. Gary Herbert in a statement. "First and foremost she was a fearless champion of education, recognizing that Utah's future success was directly connected to the important, often unnoticed, work that takes place in our neighborhood schools."
Born in Ogden, Walker received her bachelor's from Brigham Young University, her master's from Stanford University and her doctorate from the University of Utah. She married Myron Walker, self-proclaimed "Utah's First Lad," in 1954, according to Covington's release. Together they had seven children, 25 grandchildren and 25 great grandchildren.
Much of Walker's political career was dedicated to education initiatives, including the Read with a Child Early Literacy program designed to encourage adults to read with children for at least 20 minutes per day. The goal, according to Covington's statement, was to ensure Utah's young students could read at or above grade level by the end of the third grade.
Community activist and Walker's friend, Pamela Atkinson, also spent time with Walker on various programs, including education and housing reform.
"She knew our efforts in those areas could literally change people's lives," said Atkinson. "She would always say, don't quit. Don't give up. You can do it."
Herbert called Walker a trailblazer.
"She championed a lot of causes that are going to carry on way beyond her life here, and continue on for generations to come," he said. "She is just a great example to all of us of service. And we can all take a page out of the Olene Walker book."
Dedicated to emboldening women in politics, Walker created the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University. The school presented her an honorary degree in 2012 and honored her with the Emeriti Lifetime Achievement. Her long list of awards and accolades also include the 2004 Athena International Award from the Salt Lake Chamber and the YWCA's Mary Schubach McCarthy Lifetime Achievement Award.
After her time as governor. Walker and her husband spent two years serving a Mormon mission in New York City. At age 80, she served her church as Primary president.
U.S. and the State of Utah flags will be flown at half-staff until sunset Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015 in Walker's honor.
Funeral arrangements are pending.