BETA

'Let's get started' says new governor

Utah's first female head of state takes oath of office; says job is 'energizing'

Olene S. Walker didn't mince words during her inaugural address, made after taking the helm as Utah's first female governor this November:

"Now is the time," she said. "Let's get started."

Two weeks later — after making a smooth transition into Utah's top office and calling a special session of the Utah State Legislature — the Church member, politician and grandmother said she was serious.

"Even though the 400 days that I am governor may be relatively short, you can get a lot done in 400 days," she told the Church News.

Gov. Walker served almost 11 years as lieutenant governor before replacing former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who resigned this month to accept a post as director of the Environmental Protection Agency. (See Nov. 1, 2003, Church News, p. 12.)

She's now not only the first female governor of Utah — and the only female Latter-day Saint to hold such a position in any state — but also the oldest governor in the United States.

Gov. Walker celebrated her 73rd birthday Nov. 15, the same day citizens in Louisiana voted on a new governor to replace Gov. Mike Foster, also 73.

"I don't know why he quit so young," she quipped.

The job is energizing, added the woman who took only one sick day in the almost 11 years she served as lieutenant governor. "Every day is different. Every day is a new challenge. Every day is a new opportunity, and you get the opportunity to meet a lot of people and often you can help them solve a problem."

Raised on a farm near Ogden, Utah, in what is now West Haven, Olene Smith grew up in an area where people "were quite poor, but nobody ever thought they were." Her mother was a homemaker and a teacher, her father, superintendent of the Ogden School District and a stake president. She learned young to appreciate education, hard work and community service.

"I keep saying, my father called farming his golf game and we all played," she said. "We learned to work."

After attending one year at Weber College on a debate scholarship, she transferred to BYU. There she met her future husband, Myron, served as a student body officer and earned a degree in political science and history.

She married Myron after graduation, while she was working on a master's degree in political theory at Stanford University and he was in the military service.

In the first 10 years of marriage, the couple moved 13 times while he attended Harvard Business School and then pursued a career.

"I was just a typical mom," said Gov. Walker, who stayed home with their seven children while they were young, serving frequently in the PTA and on the community councils at her children's schools.

By the time her youngest child was in preschool, the couple had located permanently in Salt Lake City and she was serving as chairman of a task force that looked at elementary curriculum in the Salt Lake School District.

"The person that staffed that study asked me to go to work. I said, 'With seven kids I'm tied up.' He said, just work the two hours your youngest is in preschool."

So for many years she worked part time for the U.S. Office of Education, the Salt Lake School District and then as director of the Salt Lake Education Foundation.

In her 40s she returned to school and earned a doctorate from the University of Utah in education administration.

"I think there are seasons in life," she said. "I am glad that I could stay home with my children when they were young."

But, she adds, she is also grateful for the other opportunities she has had — including eight years of service in the Utah State Legislature.

"I think I have been given a lot of opportunity both in the Church and outside of the Church to develop leadership," she said.

A Republican in the third most Democratic district in Utah, Gov. Walker said she had to work hard to win her legislative seat.

She looks back on her time in the legislature — including a term as Majority Whip — with satisfaction, thinking "Wow, I really did help the state." In 1985, for example, she sponsored a bill to create the state's first "Rainy Day Fund."

She is also quick to list the things she hopes to accomplish now: education funding, literacy efforts, a state-wide technology system, a web site helping Utahns find the resources they need, and a program to help foster children once they turn 18 and are no longer wards of the state.

"We are going to have a busy time," she said.

During her inaugural address, Gov. Walker spoke of Martha Hughes Cannon — a Church member, wife, mother, community leader and physician who became the first woman to serve in the Utah State Senate 106 years ago.

Gov. Walker said she hopes to emulate the early Church member's career, energy and compassion.

She said Church members today should feel an obligation to not only become self-reliant themselves, but also to help others in the Church and outside the Church to have the same ability. "You know there is an obligation to help those in need," she said. "I think Church members should feel it; all citizens should feel it."

It is an obligation she feels strongly — a quality she hopes to emulate from Utah's first female state senator.

"Martha Hughes Cannon," she said at the end of her inaugural address, "we will make you proud."

E-mail: [email protected]