Ann Richards was the 45th Governor of Texas, succeeding Governor Bill Clements. She was born Dorothy Ann Willis on September 1, 1933 to Robert Cecil and Mildred Iona Warren Willis. She grew up in the Lacy Lakeview area, just north of Waco, Texas. Her father worked as a truck driver for a pharmaceutical company. During World War II, the family briefly moved to San Diego, California before returning to live once more in Waco, Texas. She attended and graduated from Waco High School in downtown Waco. Her family was not wealthy, but she took piano and elocution lessons. Once when she was a senior at Waco High, she and classmate Marilyn Reese played a piano duet and took third place in a city-wide musical talent contest. Foreshadowing her later political career, Ann also was on the high school debate team and was selected to be a representative to Girls State, an American Legion Auxiliary leadership organization that mirrors each state’s government. She was attracted by the process and was selected as a representative to Girls Nation, a group select individuals from from among the Girls State representatives. Richards entered Baylor University in Waco after high school graduation on a debate scholarship. The future governor married her high school boyfriend, David Read Richards, in 1953 during her junior year in college, and Ann went on to graduate from Baylor University in Speech and Government the following year.
The young couple lived a number of times in Austin, in Washington D. C. and at least two different times in Dallas. David earned a law degree and Ann qualified for a teaching certificate from the University of Texas while they were living in Austin the first time. For a while, Ann taught history and social studies in high school. A few years later, they were living in Dallas as David was working for a law firm. They were active in the local political scene. David was a Democratic Precint Chairman. The couple had worked in the 1960 presidential campaign and were sitting at the post-parade luncheon at the Trade Mart in 1963 when news the came that President Kennedy had been shot, quickly learning that the President had been taken to nearby Parkland Hospital and was later pronounced dead.
The couple later moved back to Austin. It was there that Ann first considered running for political office herself after having worked behind the scenes in Democratic campaigns for years. She ran for County Commissioner for Travis County and won the election. One of her first days on the job, she found herself in charge of a group of men in a county field office and also noticed a dog lying in the office. She remembered thinking to herself that it was about the ugliest dog she had ever seen in her life. Trying to break the ice, she asked the dog’s name and was sheepishly told that its name was “Ann Richards.” She didn’t think twice, broke out in a big laugh and was joined in turn by laughs from the men. Things went well for her after that and Ann served as County Commissioner for six years until 1982.
Despite some personal setbacks, including her divorce and a serious bout with alcohol, she continued to succeed in politics, being elected State Treasurer in 1982 and was reelected to the post in 1986. In 1990 she won the Democratic primary over Jim Maddox in a run-off election. She then defeated the Republican nominee, West Texas’ Clayton Williams for Governor in a hard fought campaign. At one point, a tasteless “cruelty joke” was going around asking if both Williams and Richards were to be killed in a plane crash, who would be the winner? The answer was, Texas. However, with Richards’ long years of political experience, she won a close election to become the first female Texas governor since Miriam “Ma” Ferguson over fifty years earlier. Since Miriam Ferguson was considered by many to have been elected on the strength of her husband and former Governor James “Pa” Ferguson’s political resumé, some considered Richards to be the first female to be elected on her own qualifications.
Richards had been appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve on the President’s Advisory Council for Women and served an active role in the National Women’s Political Caucus. She was considered a witty and gifted speaker, known for her wise cracking delivery. Ann was invited to deliver the keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic Convention that nominated Michael Dukakis as their candidate for President. Her speech was well received by the Democratic faithful. However, Dukakis would ultimately lose to George H. W. Bush who served one term as President. Richards would later work in the campaign that defeated the elder Bush and elected Bill Clinton as President in 1992. In 1994, Richards made a second bid to be elected Governor of Texas but was defeated by George W. Bush, the son of the sitting president she had helped to defeat. Following this loss, she elected not to run again for public office, but she continued to be active and influential in politics.
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As Travis County Commissioner, she was noted for setting up rape crisis centers, increasing assistance for families of handicapped children and other social measures. While serving as Texas State Treasurer, Ann was credited for modernizing the functions of the office and increasing the State’s revenue. As Governor of Texas, she was noted as having authorized audits of each state agency, sponsoring education reforms, increasing prison space, reducing the release of violent offenders from the prison system and appointing many women and minorities to positions of leadership in Texas government.
Richards died as a result of complications from a six month bout with esophageal cancer in 2006 at age 73. She is buried in the State Cemetery in Austin. She received many honors during her lifetime, including being awarded the Price Daniel Distinguished Public Service Award by the Baylor Alumni Association in 1998. Part of the Austin Independent School District, the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, an all girl preparatory school, was named for her. It was in the process of being organized when Governor Richards died and it opened in 2007.
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