Sisters Wendy McCleery and Susie Morris remember that life “was always crazy and busy” while growing up at “the White House,” a name neighbors and friends affectionately called their family home on Russell Avenue in Tooele.
Their mother, Beverly “Bev” Jean White, was always working on a campaign, drafting legislation or preparing for a meeting with this or that organization or board. In the midst of her hectic schedule, her daughters said, White taught her five children “to stand on our own.”
“She was a trailblazer for women,” McCleery said Thursday, “long before I realized what that really meant.”
White died May 24 in Taylorsville. She was 92. A viewing and funeral services were held Thursday and Friday in Tooele.
Among her lengthy list of accomplishments, White ranked as one of the longest-serving female lawmakers in the Utah Legislature, holding office for two decades. She was also the first woman to be named to the state’s Board of Pardons and Parole. And she was a “pioneer in women’s rights,” her obituary states.
Former state lawmakers Genevieve Atwood and Patrice Arent said they both learned from White, their longtime friend and colleague.
White was “a force to be reckoned with,” Atwood said.
“She truly cared about the underdog,” Arent added, “and making the world a better place for everyone.”
Helping women run for office
Born Sept. 2, 1928, in Salt Lake City, White moved to Tooele when was 12 years old to live with her aunt and uncle after her mother died. White dedicated the rest of her life to the city.
After graduating from Tooele High School, White married Floyd, her husband of 55 years. Called the “original multitasker” by her family in her obituary, White “wrangled” the couple’s five children while also juggling “a never-ending church schedule” as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
White “loved every aspect of the political spectrum” and helped her husband in his election to the City Council.
Her own political career began in high school, when she ran for student body secretary. In 1971, White was appointed to finish the term of a state representative who died in office. She later won reelection after reelection.
“It was really always exciting,” McCleery recalled, “... when it was legislative time, to be involved, be able to go up to the House and sit on the floor with her.”
White told The Tribune in a 1990 article that she was told on her first day at the Capitol, “It’s sure nice to have you girls dress up this place, but women don’t belong here.”
White also told the newspaper that while working on her first bill, “one senator asked me a million questions. He was the only one who voted no, so I stopped him and asked what bothers you.”
“He said, ‘It has your name on it. I don’t go for bills sponsored by women.’”
“As usual, Rep. White got even several years later,” the article continued, “when the now-defeated senator returned to the hill as a lobbyist who needed her support. ‘It was humbling for him to ask me, but it was a close measure. I didn’t tell him if I would support it or not, but I did ask him whose name was on it.’”
White supported other female leaders, and she helped with a campaign during Utah’s centennial to help 100 women run for office in the Beehive State in 1996, Atwood said. White also wrote a book about the women who served in the Statehouse from 1896 to 1993.
“Most of the women I’ve known in the Legislature go into it because they want to do something for the state or make the world better,” White said in a 1997 Tribune article. “Most of the men go because they want to run for something else or because they have a chip on their shoulder on some issue.’'
‘Her door was always open’
In her time as a state representative, White passed legislation related to displaced homemakers, discrimination of women, criminal justice, veterans’ issues, domestic violence, mental health, environmental issues and child and elderly abuse. She also sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment, which still hasn’t been ratified in Utah.
One of White’s greatest strengths, according to Atwood, was her ability to anticipate unintended consequences that may stem from a bill.
Arent agreed, saying, “She was very good at thinking how will it affect other people.”
White was a “very strong Democrat,” who rarely missed a party event and attended multiple Democratic National Conventions, they said. Arent and White both earned the Utah Democratic Party’s Eleanor Roosevelt Award — White was the first-ever recipient — and sat on a committee together that selected other winners.
“Representative White’s immense impact on Utah Democrats, and our state as a whole cannot be overstated,” the Utah Democratic Party tweeted Friday.
While Atwood describes herself as a RINO — Republican In Name Only — she and White were “good friends,” she said. When Atwood’s work brought her to Tooele, ”I always stopped by, and her door was always open.”
For decades, an American flag flew outside that door at White’s home, and “there has never been a moment in [White’s] life she hasn’t loved this great country,” according to her obituary.
“She really was truly patriotic, and that was really an important part of her life,” Arent said. “... She cared about our country. She cared about democracy.”
A participator, not an observer
Although White left the Legislature in the early 1990s, she didn’t retire from her work in the adult probation department until she was 76 years old, according to her family.
“She had so much energy and enthusiasm,” Arent said, “about all these projects she was working on.”
In 2017, Utah State University awarded White an honorary doctorate for her work in creating the college’s satellite school in Tooele. She was also instrumental in establishing the Children’s Justice Center in the city, according to Arent.
White stayed active in Tooele politics, McCleery said, working with the county’s Democratic Party and helping campaign for the city’s first female mayor, Debbie Winn.
As White got older, her children moved her to Taylorsville so she could get more care.
“Everybody at the assisted living center knew about politics because of my mom,” McCleery chuckled.
In her 1993 history of Utah’s female lawmakers, White wrote that she wanted her own headstone to read, “She was a participater in life, not an observer.”
Now, 28 years later, McCleery said, her family will “absolutely” follow her wishes.
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.