AUSTIN – With laughter and cheers, admirers of former Gov. Ann Richards celebrated her life Monday and recalled her as a trailblazing woman with a wit whose message of inclusion resonated across Texas and the nation.
One funny story after another kept a crowd of 3,800 roaring at the Frank Erwin Center, a place usually reserved for University of Texas basketball games and rock concerts. On this day, the arena was filled with gospel music, giant photographs, flowers and hilarious memories of the big-haired, blue-eyed woman elected Texas governor in 1990.
“Going out with Ann in public was like being with a rock star,” said syndicated columnist Liz Smith, a Richards friend. She told of people in New York who wanted to hang around Richards and of a New Jersey resident who once shouted out, “I voted for you.”
Richards, a Democrat who led the state from 1991-95, died Wednesday at her home in Austin at age 73 of esophageal cancer. She was buried earlier Monday at the Texas State Cemetery in private.
At the public memorial service, attended by Gov. Rick Perry, former governors and other prominent politicians and celebrities, speakers emphasized the “New Texas” that Richards heralded, a reference to opening the upper echelons of government to women and minorities.
“Ann Richards understood and embraced more of the notion that this state of Texas that we love so much could not be the Texas that we dreamed of until all God’s children got to play,” said former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who is black. “That was essentially the message of her new Texas, to let us in the door.”
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-NY, said her first thought when she met Richards years ago was, “I have just met another force of nature. I already lived with one.”
Richards began capturing national attention when she first won statewide office as Texas treasurer, Clinton said.
“All of a sudden this laughing, happy, smart, tough woman had won a statewide position in Texas. And everybody thought, well if it could happen there it could happen anywhere. And so it did,” Clinton said, pointing out that U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana were in the crowd.
Former Housing secretary Henry Cisneros, the ex-mayor of San Antonio, said Richards opened doors for women more than any of the 44 Texas governors before her and that she appointed minorities to power positions.
“She made the state of Texas look like the face of Texas,” Cisneros said. “She had a sense of the family of Texas.”
Kirk, a Texas secretary of state when Richards was governor, said Richards was “the smartest, funniest and strongest woman that many of us ever knew.” Many in the crowd applauded, and the Wesley United Methodist Church Intergenerational Choir broke into song.
One large photograph in the arena showed Richards with her granddaughter Lily Adams, who campaigned with her as a young girl. Adams, now 19, spoke for Richards’ family and said that her grandmother always wanted to do everything big, “with all the bells and all the whistles.”
Her message to her family and the country, Adams said, was: “This is your life. It is the only one you get. So no excuses, and no do-overs. If you make a mistake or fail at something you learn from it, you get over it and you move on. Your job is to be the very best person you can be and to never settle for anything less.”
The audience gave loud cheers during a video tribute to Richards that showed her days as a young Travis County commissioner and later as state treasurer and governor. It included a video moment from her gubernatorial inauguration and featured her famous 1988 Democratic National Convention speech in which she wowed a national audience by noting women’s political accomplishments: Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, she said, “only backwards and in high heels.”
Along with praise for Richards as a state leader, there were plenty of jokes. Some were repeats of funny stories Richards once told or recollections of things she did. Others focused on her trademark white hairdo.
“I guess you really want to know how the hell did she do that with her hair? I don’t know,” Smith said, to huge laughs.
Clinton, who endured constant scrutiny for her ever-changing hairstyles when she was first lady, said Richards once gave her advice about her coif.
“She said, you know, really, you’ve got to make up your mind. You either just have to do something that people forget about and pay no attention to, or you’ve got to make a statement,” Clinton said, drawing out her words to imitate Richards’ Texas twang.
Clinton said when she was trying to decide whether to run for Senate, Richards advised her that she should decide based on whether she wanted the job, not on whether it would be hard, because by nature it would be.
Clinton said Richards sent the message to young women to “set your own course, dream your own dreams. Go places where you want to go even if nobody has gone there before.”