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Barbara Vucanovich, first woman from Nevada elected to U.S. House of Representatives, dies

CARSON CITY — Former U.S. Rep. Barbara F. Vucanovich, R-Nev., died in hospice today in Reno after a brief illness, her family announced.

Vucanovich, 91, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982 and served seven terms. She was the first person elected to Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District seat and the first woman from Nevada elected to the House of Representatives.

“Barbara Vucanovich enjoyed her years of service to the people of Nevada, and like other Nevadans we are immensely proud of all she accomplished,” stated her family. “We also know that while Barbara was deeply honored to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, her family always came first. Perhaps that is why she was so admired as a politician. We will miss her and we wish to extend our thanks to everyone for their support during this time of loss.”

Praise for Vucanovich poured in from politicians of both parties.

Former Sen. Paul Laxalt, R-Nev., said he spoke with Vucanovich by phone a few days ago. He credited her campaign efforts with helping him win the lieutenant governorship in 1962, the governorship in 1966 and his first U.S. Senate race in 1974. Vucanovich began her political career as an aide to Laxalt.

“In fact, there is no way I would have won statewide political office in Nevada without the likes of Barbara Vucanovich doing the difficult ‘spade work’ that is essential to any successful campaign,” Laxalt said in a statement.

Vucanovich ran for Congress as “a tough grandmother,” and made history when she won, Laxalt said.

“She could have served for as long as she wanted, but she eventually stepped down in 1996 to care for her beloved husband, George Vucanovich, who was battling leukemia. Her popularity in the district derived from the fact that she stayed in close contact with her constituents, knew the issues that were important to them, and never lost the common touch.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Vucanovich arrived in Congress together in 1983.

“She was such a pleasure to work with,” said Reid, following her death. “She and her late husband George were inseparable whether they were together in D.C. or in Nevada. I will miss them both very much and my thoughts are with the family during this difficult time.”

Born June 22, 1921 in Camp Dix, N.J., Vucanovich was the daughter of Maj. Gen. Thomas Farrell, a noted U.S. Army figure during World War II who worked on the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb, and Ynez White Farrell, a member of one of Southern California’s founding families. Raised in New York, Vucanovich graduated from the Albany Academy for Girls and attended Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart in New York.

In the late 1940s, Vucanovich moved to Reno, where she met attorney Ken Dillon Sr. They married in 1950. The couple quickly became involved in Republican politics. After Dillon’s death in 1964, Vucanovich later married George Vucanovich, a native of Tonopah, who died in 1998.

Vucanovich’s early political career is most closely associated with Laxalt.

After Laxalt was elected to the Senate in 1974, she became his Northern Nevada district representative and served in that capacity until 1981.

A staunch conservative, Vucanovich entered Congress in 1983 when Ronald Reagan was president and Nevada had two Republican senators, Paul Laxalt and Chic Hecht. When she retired in 1996, Bill Clinton was in the White House and Nevada was represented by Democrats Harry Reid and Richard Bryan in the Senate.

Up until the 1982 election, Nevada had only one House seat. When the state was split into two congressional districts, she was elected to the one that included all but Las Vegas proper.

For all but the last of her seven terms in office, Vucanovich served in the House minority. When Republicans captured the majority in the 1994 elections, she was elected to a position in the House leadership under new Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

Among the bills she authored that became law were the source tax – to prevent other states from collecting taxes on the pension and retirement benefits of retirees, many of whom had moved to Nevada – and the repeal of the 55-mph speed limit. She supported equal treatment and pay for women and funding for early screening, detection, and treatment of breast cancer.

In her 2006 autobiography, she said that the ability to truly like people is an attribute that makes a politician successful. Representing a district that covered all of Nevada except for Las Vegas had its disadvantages, she also wrote.

“I flew to Reno. Then I flew to Elko, Ely, Yerington, Fallon, Hawthorne, Las Vegas, Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Eureka, Tonopah, Panaca, Lovelock and Pahrump. …Between flights, I attended meeting, hearings, lunches, dinners and other events seven days a week, in Nevada and in Washington.”

Her interest in politics never waned. Last year she complained about negative advertising from both Republican and Democratic candidates seeking the 2nd Congressional District seat she once held. She supported GOP Navy veteran Kirk Lippold over Republican Mark Amodei, who won the race.

In response to questions from the Review-Journal last fall, she also expressed amazement that Nevada still had a 1950s law on the books that allowed businesses to fire people for being communists. That law recently was repealed.

Amodei praised Vucanovich. “Barbara set the standard for effective public service with humility. Nevadans have never been better represented than when Barbara Vucanovich was their congresswoman.”

Gov. Brian Sandoval also extended condolences to the family.

“With the recent death of Margaret Thatcher, Great Britain lost its Iron Lady and today the Silver State has lost its Silver Lady,” he said. “Barbara Vucanovich was the matriarch of her political generation.’’

Condolences also came from other members of the state’s congressional delegation.

“During one of my first trips to Washington, Barbara took me, a complete stranger, to lunch in the Congressional dining hall,” said U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. “Ever since that day, I have admired her and valued her wisdom, experience and friendship. Barbara always stressed that constituent services and responding directly to Nevadans’ needs are the most important responsibilities of public service. Grateful for that advice, I took it to heart and have always tried to follow the high standard she set.”

“As the first woman to represent Nevada in Congress, Barbara helped to break the glass ceiling for Nevada women in the political world,” added Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev.

Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., offered similar praise.

“As the first woman to represent Nevada in the House of Representatives, Barbara was a true trailblazer and all of us who serve as elected officials have been influenced by her remarkable career in some way.”

Democratic former Gov. Bob Miller remembered her fondly.

“Whether we agreed or disagreed on specific issues one thing was always true — Barbara was always well informed and polite in expressing why she felt her opinions were the correct ones for her beloved Nevada. She was firm but civil in all dialogue, which is a trait seemingly less true in today’s politics.”

Vucanovich is survived by her daughter Patricia Dillon Cafferata and son-in-law Dr. H. Treat Cafferata of Reno; son Kenneth P. Dillon Jr. and daughter-in-law Sandra Dillon of Reno; son Tom Dillon and daughter-in-law Catherine deTar Dillon of Statesville, N.C.; daughter Susan Dillon Anderson and son-in-law Grant “Butch” Anderson III of Reno; brother Stephen Farrell of Reno; 13 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.

She was preceded in death by a son, Michael F. Dillon Sr.; a grandson, Trevor P. Dillon; and a great-grandson, Thomas Daniel Golden.

A 5 p.m. viewing will be held Thursday at Our Lady of the Snows Church in Reno. A funeral mass will be held at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Reno at 1 p.m. on Friday. A reception celebrating Vucanovich’s life will follow at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks at 4:00 p.m. Burial services are private.

In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations to Casa de Vida, 1290 Mill Street, Reno, NV 89502, or the Nevada Women’s History Project, 770 Smithridge Drive #300, Reno, NV 89502. Condolence messages can be left in the guestbook at www.waltonsfuneralhomes.com.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3900.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.

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