10/02/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT
Ann Richards loved to tell the story of meeting the all-male staff of the road department when she was elected a Texas county commissioner back in 1976. "It was icy silence, a sea of stony faces," recalls her former spokesman Bill Cryer, who heard the story often. "Ann spotted a mongrel dog and asked, 'What's your dog's name?' Someone in the far back said, 'Name's Ann Richards.' Then someone up front said, 'But we call her Miss Ann.'"
If it wasn't exactly a warm welcome to the political clubhouse, Richards—who died Sept. 13 of esophageal cancer at the age of 73—managed to use wit and her earthy manner to win over the crowd, and eventually voters statewide, to become the Lone Star State's second-ever female governor in 1990. Two years earlier, as a speaker at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, she charged into American living rooms with a televised speech that poked fun at fellow Texan George H.W. Bush, then the Vice President, and announced Richards's arrival on the national stage: "Poor George, he can't help it," Richards drawled. "He was born with a silver foot in his mouth." Bygones forgiven, the former President Bush said in a statement after Richards's death, "Texas will miss her."
Born in Lakeview, Texas, Richards taught junior high and raised four children (her daughter Cecile, 49, now heads the Planned Parenthood Federation of America) before a painful divorce from her husband, civil rights lawyer David Richards. Before she was elected state treasurer in 1982, she had been a fixture at the Austin bars frequented by politicians until, after an intervention staged by friends and family, she gave up alcohol entirely. Later, during her single term as governor, she would bring drug treatment to Texas prisons and appoint a record number of women and minority members to state posts. She lost her bid for re-election in 1994 to a relatively inexperienced West Texan who would eventually make it to the White House: George W. Bush.
Richards later consulted, gave speeches and wrote a book about coping with osteoporosis. Longtime friend Cathy Bonner says Richards complained of indigestion before being diagnosed in March with esophageal cancer, often linked to a history of smoking and drinking. Spunky to the end despite chemotherapy and radiation, Richards kept up with her friends by e-mail and delighted in the birth of her eighth grandchild this past May. "She fought it hard," says Bonner, "just like she fought everything else in her life." As gossip columnist Liz Smith commented at Richards's Sept. 18 memorial service in Austin, "Ann was also exhausting. I'm really surprised she stopped long enough to leave this world."