New elementary school to be named after Olene Walker, Utah’s first — and only — female governor

(File photo) In this May 8, 2004 photo, then-Gov. Olene Smith Walker speaks at the state Republican convention in Sandy, Utah. An elementary school named in her honor will open in fall 2020.

Utah’s newest elementary school will be named after the state’s first and only female governor.

Olene Walker Elementary School — set to honor the late former governor who served from November 2003 to January 2005 — is set to open next fall in South Salt Lake. The name was approved by Granite School District’s board of education in a 6-1 vote Tuesday.

“She was a champion of public education so we feel it is very fitting to honor her name in this way,” said board president Karyn Winder.

The new school, under construction at 3700 S. 900 West, will replace the old Roosevelt Elementary, which sits a few blocks away.

While the district has several buildings named for men — including 15 elementaries and three junior highs commemorating, among others, Thomas Jefferson, Philo Farnsworth and Jim Bridger — none of the nearly 90 schools in Granite’s boundaries currently pay tribute to a woman.

A committee in the district had asked the community for name suggestions. More than 24 ideas came in and at least two of the other suggestions were also for women: Martha Hughes Cannon, the first female state senator in Utah and Rebecca Lockhart, the first female Utah House speaker.

The school board ultimately narrowed the options. The finalists were keeping the original Roosevelt name, calling it Riverfront because the new property sits by a canal and honoring Walker.

Board member Todd Zenger, the only one who voted against commemorating the governor, worried that the school would eventually just be referred to as Walker Elementary — and no one would actually know who it was referring to. Gayleen Gandy countered that “students who attend those schools know the history of the person it is named for.”

She added: “It’s a wonderful experience for them to relate to those people.”

Walker, who died in 2015 at age 85, served first for 11 years as lieutenant governor under then-Gov. Mike Leavitt. When he resigned to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, she stepped up to finish his term.

She ran for the seat in 2004 but was defeated at the Republican convention despite a sky-high 84% approval rating statewide.

She was largely devoted to education throughout her career, reading Dr. Seuss to young school children at the Capitol and earning a Ph.D. from the University of Utah in educational administration at the age of 55.

During her brief 14 months as governor, she famously threatened to veto the budget if lawmakers didn’t add money to an early childhood reading program. They did, and she signed it.

Walker also drafted several higher education initiatives and pushed women, in particular, to go to college and get a degree. Her daughter, Nena Slighting, said in 2015: "She always told us that if someone had a good education and an opportunity for a good education, then it would change the rest of their lives.”

A political institute at Weber State University is currently named after Walker — which she helped set up in her hometown of Ogden in 2012 — and focuses on combining education and politics so students can pursue careers in public service.

The school to be named for Walker is highly anticipated in the community and expected to house 600 students. The mascot, colors and logo have not yet been decided. The rebuild comes, though, as Granite School District has struggled with low enrollment and also voted Tuesday night to close two other elementaries.

(Photo courtesy of Granite School District) A rendering of the planned Olene Walker Elementary School in Granite School District.