When Kay Orr was elected as Nebraska’s governor in 1986, it was big news.
She was Nebraska’s first female governor and the first-ever Republican female to be elected to the position in the history of the United States.
Her four years as governor were historic, but also years marked with landmark decisions and ample criticism, ending in a closely contested election in which Governor Orr narrowly lost to her democratic opponent.
But we’re not going to make this story a history lesson, because Kay’s story is about more than her years as Governor Orr.
Long before Kay was governor, she was a daughter, sister, wife and mother.
Kay grew up in Burlington, Iowa, as the youngest of four children. Many of her family members were farmers and her father served on the local city council.
She remembers being taught to know and understand the principles of the founding fathers, to respect adults and guard her tongue. It was a time in America’s history in which these values were part of every family, not just hers, and patriotism ran deep.
“We played kick the can and hide and seek,” she said. “I don’t want it to sound idyllic, but life was just simpler.”
It wasn’t perfect, Kay said, but the time and way in which she was raised shaped her worldview.
“We talked more about the virtues of life as opposed to the values – values change, but virtues don’t,” she said.
For Kay, being a woman of virtue started in her home. She and her husband, Bill, prioritized raising their two children in a way that honored their beliefs and garnered the character that was bolstered by their faith in God.
As her children grew older, Kay saw political involvement as a way to contribute to her family, neighborhood and city. She addressed envelopes and knocked on doors, making sure citizens were well-informed before going to the polls.
Kay laughed at the fact that her son and daughter were proudly pounding campaign signs into yards not long after they learned to walk. It became a family affair.
Today, Kay’s son, John Orr, is the Washington County GOP Chair and her daughter, Suzanne Gage, is the Director of Communications for Nebraska’s attorney general.
But while Kay was knee-deep in the political sphere, she said it was never her lifelong dream to become governor. She set out to be a volunteer and a voice, but as the years passed her experience and knowledge in the field grew.
Kay served as Chief of Staff to Governor Charlie Thone and was appointed as the State Treasurer. She had a wealth of experience that guided her to run for governor, but Kay also had a firm grasp on her personal and political virtues.
She didn’t want to be a politician – to her, that word had too many negative connotations linked to wishy-washy views – she wanted to couple her experience and abilities and apply them to public policy.
Yes, Kay’s governorship was historic. She has an endless number of fascinating stories about her years in office, and pictures to go with nearly every memory.
Her basement walls are lined with photos and newspaper clippings, dedicated to her time in office – strolling through the White House Rose Garden with George H. W. Bush, laughing with Ronald Reagan, sitting at a table with Margaret Thatcher.
But looking at the collection of pictures you start to notice a pattern – her family. Kay’s husband, children, and grandchildren were an intentional part of her photos and memories.
“Being a wife, mother and grandma is the greatest role in this life – it’s the best,” Kay said.
If she had to pick between her family and a political career she said she’d pick her family, no contest. Kay was a wife, mother and grandmother first and a governor second.
Kay took her job as governor very seriously. She fought to defend her decisions and beliefs and wasn’t one to keep her opinions to herself, but she also knew her career was temporary and it had boundaries. She wasn’t willing to compromise her family life, and she set that precedent early on.
When her first grandson was born, Kay wanted to be an on-call babysitter and even put a cradle next to her and Bill’s bed at the governor’s mansion. When her children pursued their own political interests, she was willing and ready with support and advice.
At 77 years old, Kay is still as sharp and feisty as ever – she sticks to her guns and loves her family, she wants what’s best for America and calls it like she sees it.
People often ask her to reflect on her governorship and talk about any regrets, but that’s not Kay’s style. She’s proud of her administration and stands behind her decisions. She doesn’t live in the past or base her worth on the comments of others.
Instead, Kay referenced a framed quotation in her kitchen that sums up how she lives each day, it reads, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. – Proverbs 3:5-6″
Kay is a woman who has known and owned her story for much of her life. She’s confident in her beliefs and unwavering in her virtues, and to her, that’s what matters.