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Bette Norene Hoge Sawyer

At a glance:

Born:  May 22, 1923 in Baker, Oregon
Died:  September 11, 2002 in Las Vegas, NV
Maiden Name:  Bette Norene Hoge
Race/ethnic background:  English and Swedish
Primary city and county of residence and work:  Elko, Carson City, Las Vegas, Nevada
Married:  Frank Grant Sawyer, August 1, 1946, in Washington, D. C.
Children:  Gail Sawyer
Major Fields of Work:  First Lady of the State of Nevada (1959-1967)
Other role identities:  mother, Parent Teachers Association, AAUW, Elko Democratic Women’s Club, American Red Cross (Recipient of the Outstanding Volunteer Service Award of the American Red Cross), Order of Eastern Star.



Bette Hoge was born May 22, 1923 in Baker (now Baker City), Oregon.  She was the only child born to Earl and Mary Hoge.  Earl had a grain and feed business and Mary was a homemaker.  Bette was an accomplished pianist and organ player, having taken seven years of lessons.  She never played in later years for anyone but her family. Even her closest friends were unaware of her talent.  Bette graduated from Baker High School where she was the drum majorette in the marching band.  She completed three and a half years at the University of Oregon, majoring in French and Spanish, hoping to become a teacher.  It was during World War II that Bette’s father felt she should not be so far from home and she left the university.  She always hoped to go back to college and get her twelve remaining credits, but life stepped in and she never did.

In 1945 the family moved to Reno, Nevada, where her father Earl became purchasing agent for Harold’s Club.  He held that position for the next thirty years.  Bette was working in Reno when her cousin asked her to go on a blind date with a friend of his who had returned to Reno after WWII ended.  He was on his way back to Washington, D.C. to finish law school.  That blind date and the six dates that followed resulted in a nearly fifty year marriage between Grant Sawyer and Bette Hoge Sawyer. They were married on August 1, 1946, in Washington D. C.

Grant came from a distinguished Nevada family.  His father was a well-known doctor from Fallon, Nevada.  Harry W. Sawyer also had served in the state legislature and was instrumental in passing the first health care bill.  Byrd Sawyer, Grant’s stepmother, was an acclaimed author, having written several books on Nevada.  Her Our State Nevada book was used for many years as Nevada’s history book in the public schools.

Grant had completed one year of law school at George Washington before the war and would finish his last two years (1946-1947) at Georgetown.  Bette became the breadwinner for those two years.  She had a fabulous job at the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences.  She worked in the secretarial pool.  The job required a security clearance as high level research was being conducted on a number of diseases.  She loved to tell about the times she saw and met Albert Einstein.  It was during this time that Senator Joseph McCarthy was investigating Communist sympathizers.  Albert Einstein was a target of the McCarthy investigations.

In 1948 Grant and Bette moved to Elko, Nevada, where Grant went into private practice.  Bette was Grant’s secretary until their only child, daughter Gail, was born in 1949.  Grant was elected District Attorney in 1950 and both he and Bette were active in many community clubs and organizations.  Bette had been a Republican until she married Grant.  She had to change her registration to Democrat in order to vote for Grant for D.A.  She became a rabid Democrat from that day forward and never, or rarely ever, voted Republican again.

In 1958 Grant was elected Governor and served two terms (1959-1967).  The Sawyers moved to Carson City, Nevada, and the Governor’s Mansion in January 1959. Bette was never comfortable in the public arena.  She was a very private person and quite shy.  She, however, dove right into her new position as First Lady and lobbied the state legislature for badly needed furniture and silverware for the Governor’s Mansion.  She was finally successful.  Bette initially had to use her own silverware when guests came to the mansion.  People thought it was state silverware and took one or two of the utensils home with them; thus, no more silverware.  She was never able to refurbish her own silverware as they no longer made that pattern.

Many well-known and celebrated people came to the mansion during those years.  But by far the most notable was John F. Kennedy.  He had come to speak to the state legislature in 1960.  Grant and Bette were hosting a reception for him at the mansion.  On the day of the reception, Kennedy and Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, had driven around Lake Tahoe and arrived several hours early at the mansion.  At that time trustees from the Nevada State Prison worked at the mansion in various capacities.  There was also a full time cook who lived there.  All of these people were in the process of finalizing preparations for the reception.  So when the front doorbell rang, Bette, dressed, in her estimation, in an old ratty robe, opened the door to see standing on the porch the future President of the United States and Pierre Salinger.  She was understandably mortified, but graciously invited them in.  Pierre played the piano downstairs, while John sat on the toilet in the bathroom chatting with Grant while he showered.  Later he talked with Gail in her bedroom.  He made everyone feel at ease immediately.  It was a day none of the Sawyers would ever forget.

The project for which Bette will most be remembered will be her tireless research and photographs of all the wives of Nevada’s governors.  The photographs still hang in the mansion and have been added to as each new governor’s wife comes into office.  Bette wanted these women to be recognized in their own right.  She was a pioneer in that the First Ladies who had preceded her had not been involved in causes of their own outside of the traditional entertaining and charity duties expected of all of Nevada’s First Ladies.  Bette opened that door and most First Ladies have continued this practice.

In 1967 Grant and Bette moved to Las Vegas, Nevada.  Grant again started practicing law and Bette was overjoyed to again be a private citizen.  She was not active in club work, to which she had devoted eight years, but spent her time enjoying her family, her friends, her new home, her yard, and her dogs.  Grant and Bette both loved to travel.  They took several trips a year and explored the world.  They remained in Las Vegas for the rest of their lives.  Grant died in 1996 at the age of 77 and Bette died in 2002 at the age of 79.

Her daughter Gail said, “My mother was one of the greatest story tellers.  I wish I had written them all down, but time got away and, truthfully, I could never have done them justice.  She had a marvelous sense of humor, a wonderful smile, and contagious laugh.  She was loyal to a fault and maintained lifelong friendships.  You always knew where you stood with her.  She was direct and to the point.  She did not have one pretentious bone in her body.  She was gracious, beautiful and, in my opinion, the world’s greatest mother and friend.”

Researched and written by Gail Sawyer, daughter of Bette Sawyer.
Posted to NWHP Web site September 2009.

Sources of Information:

Personal recollections by the author.

“First Lady of Nevada, Bette Sawyer Reflects About ‘A Pretty Good Team’.”  Reno Evening Gazette, November 3, 1966, p. 21.

Mansion Hallway Blossoms With First Lady Portraits.”  Reno Evening Gazette,  April 22, 1961, p. 9.

“She’s an ‘Old Trooper’.”  Reno Evening Gazette, April 21, 1966, p. 9.

“Bette Sawyer, Widow of Former Governor, Dies.”  Las Vegas Review-Journal.  September 12, 2002, p. 7B.

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