Carol Nixon, believed to be the first woman to serve as chief of staff to a Utah governor, said it never occurred to her she was making history by taking the job.
"I was surprised," Nixon said, when she was told shortly after being named a few weeks ago to head Gov. Norm Bangerter's staff of aides through the remaining three months of his term.Records of former governors' staffs have not been kept, according to Jeff Johnson, the director of the state archives, but it is unlikely a woman ever held the post.
The job didn't even exist until recent years. "When you look back into the early part of this century, the office was very much less complex," said State Archivist Jeff Johnson.
Back then, Johnson said, the governor turned over the duties of running the part-time office to a head secretary who was typically male. "Some of the governors had very strong secretaries," he said.
Today the job entails managing staff, advising on key issues and deciding what deserves the governor's attention. And the job sometimes means handling a crisis in place of an absent governor.
Nixon was still deputy chief of staff when a group of disabled protesters used their wheelchairs to blockade the governor's office last August to demand planned budget cuts be stopped.
Bangerter was gone, giving a speech to schoolchildren across town. Nixon, who was in charge of the office that day, was on her way to lunch when she saw the group.
She immediately contacted the governor by phone, then stepped into the crowd, promised them he would speak to them as soon he returned and repeatedly reassured them the governor did care about their concerns.
"It was a great experience for me. I welcomed the opportunity to be able to feel what they were feeling," Nixon said. "I don't want to make this a gender thing, but there's a strength in caring. We must never forget that."
Bangerter said Nixon has "been one of the stars of our administration." His first job for Nixon was chairing the inaugural ball at the start of his first term in 1985.
Later that year, the governor appointed Nixon executive director of the Utah Arts Council, a job she held until being named a deputy chief of staff in August 1991.
The governor, who has been criticized for not putting enough women in key roles in his administration, said he didn't take gender into consideration when appointing Nixon.
"It's certainly never been an issue with me. It's an issue of qualification," Bangerter said. "Nixon is totally capable and she's enjoyable to work with."
Nixon has spent 36 years in politics, most of them while she and her husband, William, an attorney and company president, were raising their six children.
Some 30 years ago, Nixon lived in Boise while setting up an office there for a newly appointed Idaho senator. Her children stayed with her sister in Salt Lake City and her husband was beginning his legal career in Washington, D.C.
She said she didn't feel guilty leaving her husband and children behind during that summer even though women were not encouraged back then to choose career over family.
"That was just so natural for me to do," Nixon said of making the decision to take the job. "I felt I was taken seriously, that I could make a difference."
Nixon did draw the line once during years of working for politicians and the arts. She turned down a White House job with the Eisenhower administration after being told it would have to be her No. 1 priority.
Nixon said she has no regrets. "I have always wanted to see women take full advantage of their talents and opportunities," Nixon said. "It's important for women to feel fulfilled in their talents."