RENO — Barbara Vucanovich, who moved to Nevada for a “quickie” divorce and became the first woman elected to Congress from the state, was remembered as both a pioneer and a “mother of love” at a funeral Friday.
Gov. Brian Sandoval, U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, former Sen. John Ensign and former Gov. Bob List were among some 400 people who paid tribute to the conservative Republican at St. Rosa of Lima Catholic Church. She died Monday in Reno at 91.
Vucanovich was elected in 1982 to a newly created second House seat that covered all of the state except Las Vegas. She retired in 1996 at age 75 after seven terms, serving the second-longest tenure of any Nevadan in the House.
She not only pioneered by being the first woman sent to Congress from Nevada, but by becoming the first Nevadan to serve in a House leadership position. While she had no college degree, she was elected Republican conference secretary in the mid-1990s, one of four leadership positions.
During her career, Vucanovich — who preferred to be addressed as “congressman” instead of “congresswoman” — worked to repeal the federal 55 mph speed limit, protected rural interests such as mining and ranching, and fought to protect casino workers and retirees from what she considered unfair taxation.
As a breast cancer survivor, she championed efforts to obtain funding for early screening and treatment of the disease. Despite opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, she supported equal treatment and pay for women.
“She was called the gentle lady of Nevada politics, and she was,” said her daughter, Patty Cafferata, a former state treasurer. “She always said that you have to be true to your convictions even if it means you won’t win re-election.”
But Cafferata said the legacy her mother was most proud of was her family. Vucanovich had five children, 14 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.
“She liked her voting record, but she liked family more,” Cafferata said. “The only time I saw her furious is when someone attacked a family member. She considered family loyalty a virtue.”
The Rev. Tony Vercellone described Vucanovich as a “mother of love” and a “woman of honor, service and faith.” She was a Roman Catholic who opposed abortion.
“She made a difference in the life of Reno and Nevada and the halls of Congress, and it’ll continue to be felt,” Vercellone said. “As a woman in the political world and as a mother, she challenged us to seek what was right.”
Other family members talked about her inner strength in overcoming adversity, including breast cancer and the deaths of two husbands and a son.
“My mother was always strong and independent and engaged with everyone she met,” daughter Susan Anderson said.
Born in Camp Dix, N.J., Vucanovich married James Bugden at age 18 without her parents’ permission. She had two children with him but moved from New York to Reno in 1949 to take advantage of Nevada’s more lenient divorce laws, according to her 2005 memoirs, “Barbara F. Vucanovich: From Nevada to Congress and Back Again.”
She married lawyer Kenneth Dillon in 1950 and became involved in Republican Paul Laxalt’s U.S. Senate campaign in 1964 after Dillon died. After serving as one of Laxalt’s top aides, she ran for Congress in 1982 with the solid backing of Laxalt, a confidant of President Ronald Reagan.
Her third husband, George Vucanovich, also preceded her in death.
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