Former Gov. Olene Walker can't quit building Utah

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 3:22 PM

Charles F. Trentelman

Olene Walker doesn’t owe Utah a nickel. After decades of service she deserves to take the rest of her life off.

Probably should, in fact. Utah’s former governor has lung problems. Getting around is hard.

Isn’t it time, I asked her, to sit and dandle grandchildren on your knees?


She’s working her tail off to set up the Olene Walker Institute of Politics and Public Service at Weber State University. She wants to help WSU students learn community involvement. Her goal is to improve my community, my neighborhood, my county and city.

Olene, a Weber County native, spent much of her life building Utah. She served eight years in the Legislature and 10 as lieutenant governor. She became governor in 2003 when Mike Leavitt quit to work for President George W. Bush.

I’ve always liked Olene. Nominally a Republican, her loyalty is to Utah and all who live there. Party never mattered; solving problems did.

Time marches on. Olene, 81, is pondering her legacy. She could hand her papers to WSU library’s Special Collections and call it good, but that’s not enough.

Early this year, she approached WSU President Ann Millner with this institute idea. Millner, a huge proponent of the university’s community involvement, helped her run with it.

Olene said the idea started when she was lieutenant governor talking to schoolchildren about elections.

“I asked one girl what democracy means. She said, ‘It means the people rule and everybody’s got to do something.’ I thought that was the best definition of democracy I’ve ever heard.”

It is that “do something” part, the duty to take ownership of your community, that her institute will nurture.

The concept is similar to the Hinckley Institute at the University of Utah: provide a forum for ideas by students and community leaders. The institute will convene panels and forums to discuss issues of the day. It will hold workshops for political candidates.

But wait, there’s more!

A community is all its residents interacting, working for the common good through government, yes, but also business.

A key part of the institute’s work will be placing students in internships in business and government to learn how communities operate and what they can do to make communities work better, “so they get some idea perhaps of what they’d like to do with their lives rather than just reading it out of some book,” Walker said.

The institute’s Oct. 10 kickoff will be a prime example.

At 11:30 a.m. in the Shepherd Union Building’s Wildcat Theater, the institute will host all living former governors of Utah and Gov. Gary Herbert in a panel discussion.

Before the panel the former governors will visit classes at WSU, talking to students. Talk about an opportunity to grill the movers and shakers about what the heck they’ve been doing to the state.

The panel discussion is public and free. You should go.

None of this is cheap, of course.

WSU is pitching in, and Olene is raising money. She wants to endow the institute with $2 million so it can be self-sustaining.

“I’m determined that if we can get enough so it is strong for 10 years, then it should be capable of going on its own.”

Feel free to chip in. Go to and click on “give online,” then “college of social and behavioral science” and “political science and philosophy.” Select the institute from the final drop-down list and enter any amount you can.

Or phone WSU and arrange to mail a donation. Call Carol Ruden at 801-626-7135.

Olene will thank you. WSU will thank you.

I’ll thank you, too, but I especially thank Olene.

The Wasatch Rambler is the opinion of Charles Trentelman. He can be reached at 801-625-4232, or He also blogs at

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