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Photo: H. Treat Cafferata
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Barbara F. Vucanovich, the first Nevada woman to be elected to federal office, was an “Army brat.” Born at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in 1921, she spent her early years at various Army posts where her father, Tom Farrell, was stationed. Her school years were spent in Albany, New York.
Elected in 1982, Vucanovich was the first woman member of Congress from Nevada and the first female to represent the Second Congressional District. Vucanovich served on the defunct Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, important to Nevada because it decided public policy on resource issues, such as mining and grazing. After she acquired more seniority in the House of Representatives, she served on the Appropriations Committee and chaired its Subcommittee on Military Construction. Because of her position, she was particularly interested in the future of the Fallon Naval Air Station and Nellis Air Force Base.
When she was elected Republican Conference Secretary, she became the first Nevadan to serve in a leadership position in the House. Vucanovich served seven terms from 1983 to 1997, the second longest of any Nevada member of the House. Vucanovich will be one of three women honored at the Girl Scout of the Sierra Nevada’s sixth annual Celebrating Women in Leadership awards dinner on October 16 at the Atlantis in Reno.
Her daughter, Patty Cafferata, who helped her mother author a memoir, interviewed Vucanovich in June.
Q Why did you move from New York to Nevada in 1949?
A I left New York for what I thought was the “Wild West.” I arrived in Reno on a train for a divorce with no plans to permanently move to Nevada. My divorce attorney met
me at the train station and arranged for me to stay in a guesthouse on Hill Street. I met Ken Dillon, a new attorney in town, at the dinner table there. We fell in love and married in 1950. He passed away in 1964.
Q What was Reno like when you first moved there?
A Reno was a small town where everybody knew everybody. Even though it was considered the “divorce capital of the world,” the locals were not particularly welcoming
to people like me who came to Reno for a divorce.
Q How did Nevada compare to the East Coast?
A I lived in Forest Hills, New York, a residential suburb of New York City. Traffic was unbelievable; only wealthy people drove their own cars to work, and everyone else took the train. Reno’s population was so small compared to New York’s.
Q What do you miss about “old” Nevada? What do you think is better now?
A People were friendlier to each other, if you lived here. Today, the old families still have connections to each other, but with the many newcomers, Reno has lost part of that feel. One of the best things about Nevada, then and now, is that there is no state income tax.
Q What do you like most about Nevada?
A I like the people, relaxed lifestyle, weather, closeness of the outdoors, and sporting activities. It is a great place to raise your children. It is my true home.
Q What prompted you to enter politics?
A I was involved in political campaigns at the local level, volunteering for candidates. I saw serving in office as a way to do something for my state.
Q What was your relationship with [former Nevada Senator] Paul Laxalt like? What was he like to work with?
A Paul and I had an easy, friendly relationship. I first met him when Ken was alive. Both men were attorneys. I campaigned across the state for Paul, and when he was elected to the U.S. Senate, I served as his Northern Nevada District Representative from 1974 to 1981. When the Second Congressional District seat was created, Paul said, “Barb, why don’t you run?”
After I was elected to Congress, Paul was the leader of the Nevada delegation. Paul, Chic Hecht, Harry Reid, and I often met in Paul’s office to discuss bills important to Nevada.
Q What was it like to be a woman legislator in the early ’80s?
A When I arrived in the House, only 19 women were serving out of 435 members. You make friends with people on your committees. Since there were so few women, I didn’t serve on many committees with another woman. This made it hard to make female friends.
Q How did learning that you had breast cancer change your life and career?
A In March 1983, right after I was elected, I discovered I had breast cancer. I realized how unpredictable life is and wondered how short my life would be. I decided to deal with the cancer realistically—I took the hard route and had a mastectomy. I was the first woman in my family to have breast cancer, so I didn’t know anything about it. I quickly realized I needed to get on with my life and get back to work to accomplish what I could.
I became conscious of others with breast cancer, knowing how vulnerable they felt. I personally reached out to others and publicly spoke out on the need for education and early detection. I sponsored legislation for Medicare to cover annual mammograms. Breast cancer can often be cured with early detection.
Q Your family includes five children, 17 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren. Do you see them often?
A My son, Tom, and his family live in North Carolina, so I don’t see them often. Most of my family lives in Reno, so I see many of them on a weekly basis. We get together for holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Mother’s Day, and birthdays. Occasionally, I play golf with my son, Ken, or daughter, Susan, and their spouses. I attend church with my daughter, Patty.
Q What have you been doing since you retired?
A Some important members of my family have passed away. My husband, George, died in 1998, and I’ve lost a son, brother, and sister. My youngest brother, Steve, now lives with me, and my dog, Charlie, walks me every day to keep me active.
I’ve been involved in political and community activities. President George W. Bush appointed me to the White House Commission to Select White House Fellows, and I was a trustee on the Board of Saint Mary’s Health Network. I’ve since retired from both activities.
WORTH A READ
Barbara F. Vucanovich: From Nevada To Congress, And Back Again, by Patty Cafferata, University of Nevada Press