Pioneer, Trailblazer: Virginia Mae Days was one of a kind as CalVet director

NOTE: This is the second in a periodical series of stories about CalVet, its history, and its programs.

In a secluded hallway inside the California Department of Veterans Affairs building in Sacramento, rows of photographs reflect the succession of CalVet’s leadership, from its inception in 1946 to present.

One portrait stands out, but not because it is any larger than the others. It isn’t. All are in frames of similar size. Nor is it because the artistry is any better than the rest.

Virginia Mae Days
Virginia Mae Days

It is an eye catcher because while all of the other faces on that wall are of men, this one bears the warm smile of Virginia Mae Days, the only woman to lead CalVet thus far during its 73-year existence.

Her appointment by Governor Jerry Brown in the summer of 1975 became one of the many firsts she achieved during her long and distinguished career. She became the first woman to run CalVet, and therefore also the first and only Latina to guide the agency.

Before her appointment to CalVet, she’d been the first Latina to serve as mayor of Morgan Hill. After leaving CalVet in 1981, she became the first Latina Superior Court judge in Santa Clara County.

While at CalVet, she ran a male-dominated agency and her abilities to do so were never questioned.

“Nobody ever said that this is not a profession for women,” she said in a 1979 story that appeared in the Hanford Sentinel under the headline, “Woman Director is ‘No Pioneer’ ” “Nobody ever said that this job (law) would be difficult for a woman. Nobody raised those questions. I just never considered myself a pioneer.”

Many years later, and several years after her passing, former Governor Brown would disagree, using a variation of “pioneer” to describe her.

“Virginia was a real trailblazer and served the state ably,” Brown told CalVet recently.

Days graduated from Morgan Hill’s Live Oak High in 1952, spent a year at San Jose State, and then joined the Navy. She served during the Korean War, remaining in the Navy until 1957. She then returned to college, earning her law degree from U.C. Berkeley School of Law in January 1964. Days opened her own law practice in Morgan Hill, but her interest in government service became apparent soon thereafter. She sat on the Morgan Hill Planning Commission, won a city council seat in 1970, and became mayor two years later.

Then, in 1975, Governor Brown appointed her to become the seventh director of CalVet, which at the time was a division of the state’s Department of Consumer Affairs. Governor Pete Wilson elevated CalVet to cabinet-level status in 1994, and the title of Director became Secretary.

Days convinced the State Department of Finance in 1976 to reverse its recommendation to close the Veterans Home of California-Yountville, and to instead invest in the facility. Now, it is the flagship of a network of eight Veterans Homes of California, stretching from Redding in the north to Chula Vista, near San Diego.

In 1977, she created a task force to allow non-veteran spouses to live at the Yountville home as well. That same year, she appeared on behalf of CalVet at an event at the Los Alamitos Naval Air Station, where she handed a California flag to Omar Bradley, the last five-star Army general, for his 10 years as a California resident. She also represented CalVet at the dedication of the Riverside National Cemetery in 1978.

But her time at CalVet certainly had its challenges. In the mid-1970s, Presidents Ford and Carter allowed veterans who had “undesirable” discharges to reapply, and in some cases they became eligible for VA benefits as a result. That upset many honorably discharged veterans, and some took their frustrations out on Days in letters to CalVet.

In 1976, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the State Veterans Board both demanded that she be fired for her management of the department. According to newspaper accounts, they were upset that the CalVet Home and Farm Loans program built a $140 million surplus, earmarking some of it money for loans for veterans of future generations when the groups believed the money should be made available only to veterans at that time. Governor Brown showed steadfast support for Days and refused their demands, she continued to run the Department for five more years.

When Prop 13 passed in 1978, it changed the state’s property tax structure that was the prime funding source for government agencies. Days worked hard to minimize the damage. More than 40 CalVet employees in 25 offices statewide lost their jobs, but she saved 70 jobs and kept 22 other offices from closing due to the budget cuts.

In 1981, she was on the verge of yet another first: Days was set to become the first woman ever to head the otherwise all-male National Association of Veterans Affairs Directors. Instead, she stepped down to accept her judicial appointment in Santa Clara County.

She died in 2015, and a year later added another first posthumously: She became among the first women veterans to be interred at the new California Central Coast Cemetery in Seaside.

How fitting.

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