04/18/2011 at 01:00 AM EDT
Her rare blood cancer would give Geraldine Ferraro five years tops, doctors said in 1998. But here it was, February of Year 13, and she and her best pals were gathered at her New York home. "It wasn't goodbye, but a good girlie-girl afternoon, trading stories and joking," U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski recalls. "Her wit and grit carried her through, even in these last days."
A lawyer who, as a congresswoman in 1984, was tapped by Democrat Walter Mondale to be the first woman on a major presidential ticket, Ferraro died on March 26 at age 75, with her husband of 50 years, John Zaccaro, and their three children at her bedside. Before championing the cause of cancer research, she'd kept her diagnosis secret for three years, calling privacy one perk of losing elections. But for a generation of women, it's the trailblazing-not the loss-that is legacy. "She won't see the woman President who will finish breaking the glass ceiling," says U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, "but we will all be standing on the shoulders of Gerry Ferraro."