Olene Walker was born in Ogden, UT in 1930. Her parents were both educators and her father was the Ogden School Superintendent for 25 years. Olene was elected to her first position in the student government during junior high. She later earned a debate scholarship to Weber College, but transferred to Brigham Young University after her first year. After earning her Bachelor and Master’s degrees she was elected to the Utah House of Representatives in 1981. At the same time, she was also earning her doctorate degree in Educational Administration from the University of Utah. She served in the House until 1989, serving as the majority whip during her last term.
Olene became the first woman to serve as Lieutenant Governor in Utah when Michael Leavitt asked her to be his running mate for governor in the 1992 election. They won and she took office on January 4,1993.
She served as Lieutenant Governor for ten years, until Governor Leavitt was asked by President George W. Bush to be the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Olene made history again when she was sworn in as Governor in 2003, the first female governor of Utah. In her inauguration speech, Walker harked back to Martha Hughes Cannon, the first female senator, saying, “Martha Hughes Cannon, we will make you proud.”
Governor Walker focused on education and affordable housing throughout her career. Her most prominent agenda was her ‘Read With a Child’ program. Walker was passionate about making sure that children were reading at or above their grade level.
When the time came for reelection, however, Walker lost the Republican primary election. She served for a total of fourteen months. In her farewell speech, she said “I have memories of a young boy calling me ‘the governor who makes us read.’”
Walker passed away on November 28, 2015. In the obituary the family asked, “In lieu of flowers, please read with a child or send a contribution to the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University.”
To see all of the documents the Utah State Archives has from Olene Walker’s public service go to the Archives website.
Nene Slighting, Lisa Carricaburu, “Governor Olene Walker, Utah’s First (and only) Female Lieutenant Governor & Governor,” Better Days 2020, Accessed December 20, 2019. https://www.utahwomenshistory.org/bios/olenewalker/
“Olene (Smith) Walker: 1930-2015,” The Salt Lake Tribune, December 1, 2015. https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/saltlaketribune/obituary.aspx?n=olene-walker-smith&pid=176712658&fhid=18490
Utah State Capitol. “Olene Walker: Governor 2003-2005.” Accessed December 20, 2019. https://utahstatecapitol.utah.gov/explore/capitol-art/governors/olene-walker