Reflections on a Grandmother’s Lifetime of Service
* Olene Smith Walker *
First Woman Governor of Utah 2003-2004

Early this past spring we gathered with our family and dozens of other families under a cheery pavilion at Deseret Pioneer Village. Adults mingled with one another and served food to the large and bustling crowd. Huge pieces of fried chicken, plates of scrumptious potato salad, drippy slices of sweet watermelon, chilled cans of soda pop and tasty cakes adorned this perfect picnic. Local community dignitaries and happy children alike joined the festivities. On the front row of a series of benches adults and children alike enveloped a small woman; parents greeting her with handshakes and hugs and children even calling her grandma. This celebration had all the trappings of a grand family reunion. But just beyond the fringes of the arbor, greeters met the crowd with name tags, banners and placards, and it became apparent that the little woman we had all come to greet was not simply a grandmother, but rather, she was Olene Smith Walker, the first woman Governor of the State of Utah.

When Governor Walker was a little girl, she may have had aspirations to be a cheerleader or student body officer. She may have thought about being a leader for the people in her community. But she probably never imagined the day when she would be the 15th Governor of the State of Utah and be one of the most influential women in the United States of America. As students of professional genealogy research at Heritage Gene@logy College, we had had the opportunity to study this remarkable woman’s ancestry and interview her and her staff this past year (April-May 2004 Interviews – OSWI) in our effort to discover through family history research some answers to the age-old questions everyone asks, “Who am I? and Where did I come?” Olene Walker’s family history reveals how her heritage influenced this rise to power, and yet, made her the caring grandmother that she is; complete with her favorite cookie recipe that she is always so willing to share.

Olene Smith Walker’s roots run deep in the soils of England and Norway and the LDS culture of her pioneer immigrant ancestors as converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Thomas Marston Smith and his wife, Eliza Ann Wright of England and Norwegians Ole Olsen and Aletta Josephine Christiansen were her father’s family. Her mother’s great- grandparents, Wheatley Gibson and his wife, Selena England, and William Hadley and his wife Ann Welch all emigrated from England. Governor Walker’s ancestry came to America with hearts and hands and minds ready and willing to build a new life in a wilderness where they could live their religion. They brought this heritage to Zion, the Territory of Utah in the 1870’s and 1880’s and forged out a full life in the Weber Valley during the tumultuous political era that ran counter to their newly embraced religious faith. Olene learned from these courageous ancestors, their love of God and freedom; their experience with woman’s suffrage, legal, and property rights; and saw the example of leadership, education, community service, tenacity and hard work. One must understand this history and culture to appreciate the drive that our first woman governor has had. She moved within the realms of the teachings of her faith, embracing first her duty to God and family and then to her career. We learned as we studied her family and her life, that Olene Walker embodies the rich description of Latter-day Saint life and culture found in the following quotes from Carol Cornwall Madsen’s Battle for the Ballot, a Collection of Essays on Woman Suffrage in Utah 1870-1896 -BB- and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (EM).

“Why, if the ideology and the organizational energy for woman suffrage came out of the East, did the actuality of woman suffrage emerge in the West? And why Utah? Why woman suffrage among the Mormons?” (BB p. viii) “Historians have long theorized the reasons why the West in general and Utah in particular extended the vote to women so far in advance of the eastern states, which had cradled the quest for equal rights since 1848….Mormon women, however, had from the earliest times, enjoyed the religious franchise and had voted on civic matters as well for a brief period before Utah became a territory. Thus, extending the vote to the political arena was not as inexplicable as it might have seemed. Utah experienced other unique circumstances as well, all of which played a part in moving its all-Mormon territorial legislature to grant the vote to women in 1870.” (BB p. 6) Frederick Jackson Turner theorized in explaining woman suffrage in the West “that an indigenous strain of Western democracy engendered it.” (BB p. ix) “Utah claimed other distinctions relating to women’s rights besides the early franchise for women. Utah women, and especially Latter-day Saint women, had access to legal rights and judicial remedy unavailable to many American women in the nineteenth century…including the rejection of common law in Utah…giving married women property rights.” (BB p. 9)

“Latter-day Saints teachings emphasize many aspects of civil duty, including responsible self government; an informed public spirited citizenry; and obedience to law. LDS scriptures and leaders also encourage activity in organizations that build and maintain community life, making oneself available for public and military service, and avoidance of government welfare dependency. LDS teaching stresses education and a healthy lifestyle, both of which contribute a strong citizenry.” (EM Vol. 1, p. 285)

“Latter-day Saint women were involved in public life long before women in the other parts of the United States. They have always voted in church congregations (1830). The University of Deseret, founded in Salt Lake City in 1850, was the first co-educational university West of the Mississippi. H. H. Bancroft’s History of Utah reported that women voted in the provisional government before territorial status in 1850….The first documented women voters in modern times were in Salt Lake City on February 14, 1870…” (EM Vol. 1, p. 285)

“The Church has encouraged its members to make themselves available for public office and many have responded.”…. From the first woman state senator elected in the United States, Dr. Mattie Hughes Paul Cannon of Utah in 1896 to today where we have many municipal, state and federal leaders who are LDS women. (EM Vol. 1, p 286)

“Church members are encouraged to help their communities through volunteerism…. ” (EM Vol. 1, p. 286)

“In times of increasing dependence on government programs and assistance, Latter-day Saints as a group consciously try to live in such a way as to reduce their burden on the government. Their lifestyle teachings and youth programs are often cited as explanations for low rates of crime, drug abuse, alcoholism, illness and unemployment in “the areas where they live. Through these and other means, they invest in, and promote, education, moral behavior, and leadership….” (EM Vol. 1. p. 286)

Olene Smith Walker is a living reflection of this heritage.

She was born on 15 November 1930, in Ogden, Utah to Thomas Ole Smith and Nina Hadley Smith. She was the second of their five children. Her father, T. O. Smith, a prominent educator and religious leader, had a big influence on his children’s lives, teaching his family that they all had an obligation to make their community a better place. Olene grew up on her parents’ 140-acre farm. “We all learned to work. The farm was his golf game and we all played,” she said.(OSWI) During her childhood and formative years, T. O. served as a lay leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for over 25 years; first as Bishop of the Wilson (Ogden) Ward and later as the North Ogden Stake President from 1942-1965. All the while, he pursued his career as an educator in the Ogden School District where he served as the Superintendent from 1948-1969. Ever community minded, he even brought the symphony to Ogden. He was, in her words, “a workaholic.” (OSWI)

Nina Hadley Smith, Olene’s mother, was also a tremendous influence on her daughter. Education and community service were very important to Nina as well. She went into teaching during WWII while serving as a 4-H leader in the Extension Service, and as Relief Society President. “She fed the whole neighborhood on her 1 ½ acre garden,” Governor Walker recalled. (OSWI)

Olene’s parents instilled within their only daughter a strong appreciation for education and encouraged the development of a well-rounded life. “I was very active in school; into Debate, Pep Club at Weber High School. I was President of the student body at Wilson Jr. High School and Attendant to Miss Weber. I played the violin – remarkably bad. I can’t believe what kept my parents giving me lessons!” She joked. (OSWI) Continuing, she said, “I played football with my brothers – all kinds of sports. I had a horse and a bike. I read a lot. Mother was my 4-H leader and I won an award for sewing a suit. I got to go to Chicago where Kraft Foods held a forum and asked me to moderate it.” (OSWI) Olene continued to be involved with school government from high school on though college. “I was always very involved in student government and the year book in high school. I served as a BYU student body Vice-President at a time when there were only five people in student government at the Y. I was first Attendant to the BYU Homecoming Queen in 1948 during my Junior Year.” (OSWI)

“It was always assumed that I would go to College. I got interested in politics. When my dad heard my plans, he asked, ‘what are you going to do with a political science degree?’ So, I got my teaching credential on the side and eventually taught for about six weeks. I thought that I would like to be a Professor and teach college so I decided to get a Master’s Degree.” (OSWI) She earned multiple degrees from world-renowned institutions of higher learning; a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science (Brigham Young University); Master’s in Political Theory (Stanford); and a Doctorate in Education Administration (University of Utah.)

She had the typical Utah fairy tale romance, marrying her college sweetheart, Myron Jesse Walker between the “Winter and Spring quarter of my master’s degree” (OSWI) on March 24, 1954 in the Salt Lake Temple. Living in the Avenues of Salt Lake City, they raised seven children who have enriched their lives with 25 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. As a “stay-at-home mom” (OSWI) and heavily involved in her children’s lives and activities, she served as the PTA President for their schools. Olene spearheaded the formation of the Salt Lake Education Foundation that led to similar projects in all Utah School districts to help them meet their financial needs. When Myron decided to purchase Country Crisp to be his own boss, after working 60 hours a week for someone else, she joined him in his family’s venture.

In the 1980’s Olene Walker was elected to the Utah State House, representing her district for 8 years, including a four-year term as Majority Whip. Her greatest legacy was sponsoring the “Rainy Day Fund” that has enabled Utah to continually meet it obligations and earned Utah the respected #1 Best Top Managed State Award numerous times. With beliefs in limited government, pro-life, pro-education and pro-family, Olene became Governor Leavitt’s right hand man in 1992, until he left for Washington in 2003. Elected for 12 years as a three term Lieutenant Governor, she served for 11 years as a skilled leader in the challenging leadership role of consensus, compromise and conciliation. She once described the valuable lessons that she had learned during her government service, “Being a leader in Government is not like the Private Sector. You can’t be a dictator. You must learn to bring people together to be successful with your programs. Sometimes it is a long process. To get things done you must first develop trust and listen to others – to hear others positions in order to reach the compromise.” (OSWI) Olene Walker literally spent a lifetime learning this and preparing for her last year in public office: from her early days working on her family farm; through her active school years; into her long hours of studying; being a mother, a wife, a companion and a community volunteer; to her experiences in the private sector and eventually public life. And she built this life on the framework given her by her forefathers. Olene Smith Walker took this all this with her at 72 years of age when she broke through political glass ceiling in Utah on November 5, 2003 when she became Utah’s 15th Governor and First Lady of the State. She will be remembered for a year of service that promoted volunteerism, education, literacy, fiscal responsibility and business development. She is an honor to her family and heritage.

So, what advice would Utah’s first woman Governor, Olene Smith Walker, share with the women of this generation aspiring to do great things? What can her fellow LDS women, young and old alike, learn from her and her achievements?

“I would encourage all women to take advantage of the opportunities offered them or just jump in and be involved in whatever level you can…”(OSWI) She also added that “women can be policy makers, they can be decision makers. They need to take the opportunity to make the world a better place. We all have that obligation”. (OSWI) This is exemplified by “My favorite story is of a 5th grade boy in a Weber elementary school who I met while I was Lieutenant Governor. I had asked the question “What does democracy mean?” He merely said “People rule, so we all have to do something.” (OSWI)

We need to keep our eye on Governor Olene Smith Walker. She has had a long and rewarding career in the private and public arena and will leave office on January 4, 2005 with the singular recognition that she broke the political barrier for women in Utah. A gifted student of human nature with vast experience in the political process, Olene Walker is an invaluable resource for the present and the future. She has lived a remarkable life and contributed to the educational, economic, social, religious, and political well being of both her state and her nation. She is a storehouse of wisdom, knowledge and skilled leadership that we need to continue to tap. This brilliant, genuine, and charming woman stands as a worthy exemplar of womanhood for her fellow Saints and is a role model for the modern woman. Governor Walker is to be much admired for how she has lived her life as a woman, a mother, a citizen and a politician. We are grateful she was the woman of the hour when Utah needed her.

And — She’s a great cook, too! When asked for her favorite cookie recipe that she loves to prepare for her family, she gave us her “7 Layer Bars.”

Governor Olene Smith Walker’s 7 Layer Bars

Melt 1/2 stick of butter in a 13×9 pan in oven.
Remove from oven.

Sprinkle 1 individual package graham crackers that have been finely crushed over butter.

Sprinkle the following over the butter and graham cracker crumbs in the order given:

1 cup Skor Baking Bits (preferred) or butterscotch chips
1 cup coconut
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup chopped nuts

Pour evenly overall:

Bake about 25 minutes at 350 degrees.

Run knife around edges while warm, cut when cool.


By Jonette Brown, Shawn Magnuson, Christine Martin, Ralph Oldland, Mary Petty, (Heritage Gene@logy College students) and Instructors, Jeanette Daniels, and James W. Petty, AG, CG