Nancy Sullivan Gomes

Portrait by artist Dorothy Newberg, courtesy of the Gomes Family

The information below has been compiled from a variety of sources. If the reader has access to information that can be documented and that will correct or add to this woman’s biographical information, please contact the Nevada Women’s History Project.

Born:  June 19, 1926, Lovelock, Nevada
Died:  July 12, 1979, Reno, Nevada
Maiden Name:  Nancy Ann Sullivan
Race/Nationality/Ethnic Background:  Caucasian/Irish, English and Welsh
Married:  Lawrence W. Trainor (1951-1955), John M. Gomes (1957-1979)
Children:  Lawrence Eugene Gomes, Terrence Michael Gomes, and Maryann Gomes Thompson
Primary city and county of residence:  Reno, Washoe County
Major Fields of Work:  Social worker, PTA member, Washoe County School Board Member, Nevada State Assembly legislator
Other Role identities:  wife, mother, sister, daughter, concerned citizen, cancer survivor and warrior

Biography

Social worker, legislator worked tirelessly for a better life for others

Nancy Ann Sullivan Gomes was an advocate and leader in Nevada addressing poverty, welfare rights, children’s rights, women’s issues, and racial injustices.

Born in Lovelock, Nevada to Ruth Davis Sullivan and Eugene Sullivan in 1926, she was the middle child with seven siblings (oldest to youngest):  Edgar Hollingsworth, Leola Armstrong, LaVerne Hollingsworth, Eugene ‘Sully’ Sullivan, Walter Sullivan, Marilyn Cervantes and Terry Sullivan.  Throughout her life, her parents and siblings were always dear to her despite political disagreements. 

She was proud to be a native Nevadan and from an early age developed a strong sense of duty to her family and community.  She told Reno Gazette-Journal journalist Rollan Melton that she was influenced by the Great Depression and her mother’s generosity to feed the poor and hungry until there simply no food left to give.  

Nancy Gomes was a graduate of Fremont High School in Sunnyvale, Calif., where her father was stationed as a USDA agricultural agent.  When her family returned to Lovelock, she also received a diploma from Pershing County High School in 1944, important to her mother, Ruth, one of the school’s first graduates.  Nancy earned a bachelor’s degree in English with a psychology minor from the University of Nevada, Reno in 1948.  She served as editor of the student newspaper Sagebrush. After graduation, she went to work for the State of Nevada Welfare Department.  She attended the University of Chicago graduate model program in Social Work Administration.  

Upon returning to Nevada, she started her family with Lawrence Trainor in Scheelite, Nev., a remote tungsten mining camp of less than 50 people in Mineral County at the southern end of Dixie Valley.  Like all mining camps at the time, Scheelite was relatively primitive.  For medical care, she had to travel to where the rural doctor was practicing. She drove to Fallon for Larry’s birth and to Lovelock for Terry’s birth.

The late 1950s included a lot of life changes.  Her marriage with Lawrence Trainor ended in 1956, and by 1957 she had moved to Reno and married John Gomes.  She completed her family with the birth of daughter Maryann in 1958.  In 1959 she was diagnosed with ovarian and bladder cancer. For the next 20 years, she would undergo several surgeries and treatments to fight cancer. The battle became an integral part of her life, always in the background, but she was adamant about not allowing it to take center stage. At times she believed she was free from cancer, only to realize it had returned, requiring her full energy and focus.  While battling the disease, she continued to devote her time to raising a family, working and serving in elective office.  

In the 1960s, she worked for the Nevada Catholic Welfare Bureau and the “Pedro Pan” Program which found local Nevada foster families for Cuban refugee children.  During this time she was a den mother for her two sons’ Cub Scout troop and worked at the Nevada State Hospital as assistant director and grant writer for the children’s division.  She was president of the northern Nevada chapter of the League of Women Voters in 1964-1965 and a board member of Northern Nevada Planned Parenthood.  In 1966 she served as the northern Nevada campaign manager for Democratic Congressional candidate Ralph Denton. In 1967-68 she was president of the Washoe County League of Women Voters.  In 1968 -70 she served as deputy director of the Washoe County Economic Opportunity Board, following the founding of the federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO).  In this role, she fought on the frontlines of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” and secured for the first timel benefits for the poor, blind and disabled Nevadans provided by the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act.

In the early 1970s, still faced with the challenges of family, career and cancer, she fought for people who did not have a voice in the system.  By this time, cancer was aggressively interfering with her dreams and goals.  She later acknowledged, “I stayed so active this decade (the Seventies) because I knew at some point I wouldn’t be too active.” As a dedicated, skilled and determined activist, she initiated and lobbied for state legislation on public assistance, child welfare, adoption reform, labor management relations and the initial Nevada Juvenile Code.  She produced publications on these issues and became a champion for improved health and welfare for the underprivileged.  She focused on children disadvantaged by poverty, racism, disabilities, gender bias and other challenges.  

She remained an advocate of civil liberties and formally testified in state and local forums on behalf of welfare recipients.  Poor people’s welfare and well-being were always her main focus and her drive was never lost in personal ambition, monetary or institutional surrender to power centers.

She became a friend and ally of women active in important issues, especially the Equal Rights Amendment.  Her sister Leola Armstrong, Maya Miller, Ruby Duncan, Dominican Sister Carol Hurrah M.D., Virginia Cain, Mayor Barbara Bennett, Mollie Gregory, Barbara Thornton, Sara Denton, Jean Ford, Mary Gojack, and Sue Wagner are some of the women she built strong comraderies with and drew strength from their involvement and commitment to make positive changes.  She was a mentor and confidante of the dedicated young attorneys in the Bay Area who in the 1970s founded the feminist law practice Equal Rights Advocates.

Nancy was also a friend and colleague of many men working for social justice in Nevada and nationally, including Ralph Denton, Whitney Young (executive director of the National Urban League and advisor to presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon), Nevada Attorney General Charlie Springer, Reverend Dr. Howard Gloyd, Mahlon Brown Jr., and Marion Bennet.

Nancy’s desire to do all she could to help those in poverty, and her rare ability to get along with everyone, even those she disagreed with, naturally led her into politics. In 1972 she was elected to the Washoe County School Board where she championed disadvantaged students.  In 1973 she was elected chairperson for the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Aesthetics and Design for Reno, Sparks, and Washoe County.  Her son Terry says, “If we had listened to her, I-80 would have passed to the north and not destroyed one of the best parts of old Reno.  We would be just as big and prosperous, but we would also have green belts of forests, parks, and ranches.”

In 1975, she was selected as revolving chairperson of Washoe County Board of Equalization, an agency for citizens of all political parties to voice their concerns regarding the fair and efficient operation of property taxes.  

Her last years were the years she was the most proud of. In November 1976, she was elected to her only term in the Nevada State Assembly, representing District 24 which extended from northwest Reno to the Oregon border.  She wanted to represent all people in her district, so she made sure to campaign in small, remote Gerlach because “all voters deserve to be heard.” 

During the 1977-79 legislative session she sponsored legislation to fund Rancho San Rafael Regional Park in Washoe County, wrote legislation for welfare reform and women’s equality, and specialized in education issues as a member of the subcommittee studying Nevada public education.  While in the Assembly, she co-taught a “‘Women in Politics” class at Truckee Meadows Community College with Professor Faun Dixon and was appointed to the Northern Nevada Substance Abuse Council. 

During these final years, Nancy was regularly recognized for her dedication and perseverance. In 1977 Nancy received the “Woman of the Year” award from Soroptimist International of Truckee Meadows. In 1978, Nevada Governor Mike O’Callaghan acknowledged Nancy’s contributions in a letter awarding her with a certificate stating, “The enclosed certificate is an expression of my thanks.  But a certificate such as this cannot fully convey the great debt of gratitude which all of us owe to you for your efforts on behalf of Nevada.”  

In March 1979, she received the UNR Distinguished Nevadan Award, the most prestigious award conferred by the Board of Regents.  In accepting the award, she said, “Make every day count.  If you want to do something, get on with it.”  

Nancy passed away on July 12, 1979.  After her death she was indeed remembered as a woman who “walked her talk” and held to her convictions even when they were not popular.  Governor Robert List said, “There is certainly no one that devoted more of their life to improving Nevada, its institutions, and the welfare of its people than Nancy Gomes. Her death is a loss to all Nevadans.” 

Nancy Gomes received many posthumous honors.  In 1981, Soroptimist International of Truckee Meadows established the Nancy Gomes memorial scholarship for women. Washoe County School Board named Nancy Gomes Elementary School in Cold Springs, Nevada in her honor.  A 1981 bipartisan Concurrent Resolution of the Nevada State Legislature said in part, “The heart of every member of this legislature is deeply grieved and sorrow-stricken by the recent passing of Nancy Gomes, one of Nevada’s proudest citizens, legislator and champion for the underdog.”

As much as her accomplishments, people remember Nancy Gomes as a warm person with fiery blue eyes, a crooked but gleaming smile, and gentle laugh.  Her closest friends knew that Nancy was unique, but not a saint.  She enjoyed social drinking, the very rare cigar or cigarette, and irreverent jokes about powerful people.  

In his eulogy, UNR Associate Profession of History John Marschall, summed up Nancy as an activist and person:

 “I knew Nancy as a kind of ‘Pope John XXIII Catholic’ — as she would have described herself.  She cared for and attended to persons rather than titles or credentials.”   He continued with remembering her “as sensitive, gentle and persistent.”  And also “knew her with an angry look and her temperature visibly rising, when she recalled or first became aware of injustice to anyone — particularly injustice rendered to innocent children and the poor. “

Researched and written by Maryann Gomes Thompson, Terry Gomes and Larry Gomes with contributor John Gomes

Sources of Information

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