Thousands gather to say good-bye to Richards at celebrity-packed service
AUSTIN Prominent politicians, celebrities and regular Texans gathered Monday for a final farewell to former Gov. Ann Richards.
Thousands of Richards admirers, including many members of the LGBT community, streamed into the Frank Erwin Events Center at the University of Texas, a cavernous building usually used for college basketball games and rock concerts. Two huge photographs of Richards in her political prime hung on each side of the stage.
The star-studded memorial service featured U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, former San Antonio mayor and U.S. housing secretary Henry Cisneros and syndicated columnist Liz Smith as speakers.
“Going out with Ann in public was like being with a rock star,” Smith said, as she cracked up the audience with a series of funny stories about Richards. “Ann Richards was the most alive person I have ever known in my life. Let’s keep her that way.”
Richards was “the smartest, funniest and strongest woman that many of us ever knew,” Kirk said as he opened the music-filled service. Many in the crowd applauded before a gospel choir broke into song.
Before the service, as the tunes of Texans Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett played on loudspeakers, Republicans Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and other statewide office holders mingled. Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Don Evans attended on behalf of President Bush.
Richards’ electoral defeat to Bush in 1994 signaled the Republican takeover of Texas statewide politics.
Richards was buried earlier Monday at the Texas State Cemetery in a private service before family and friends. Singer Nanci Griffith performed and actress Lily Tomlin attended, family spokesman Bill Crier said.
All weekend, Richards’ fans who paid their respects at her casket at the Texas Capitol spoke of her as a role model for young women and told of her famous sense of humor.
“She was a grand dame,” said Creighton Bailey, 39, who moved to Austin shortly before Richards was elected governor in 1990.
“She was one of the most cordial women you’d ever hope to meet. She also was very funny,” Bailey said.
Former President Bill Clinton greeted her casket Sept. 16 and paid tribute to Richards as a woman who had “a big heart, big dreams, did big deeds.”
Richards, a Democrat who was governor from 1991-95, died Sept. 13 at her home in Austin of esophageal cancer. She was 73.
“I really like her,” said Mary Mendoza, 57, a federal government employee from Austin. “She gave us a lot of rights, especially for Hispanic people, a lot of opportunities.”
In the Capitol on Sunday, a black sash was draped atop Richards’ official portrait. Beneath the painting, some admirers placed yellow roses and sunflowers and a copy of the serenity prayer used in Alcoholics Anonymous.
Richards was candid about her 1980 treatment for alcoholism.
Siri Hutcheson, 51, a psychotherapist who lived in the same downtown apartment building as Richards, visited the Capitol on Sunday and recalled her encounters with Richards. She said she would ask Richards her opinions on subjects like gay rights, and Richards spoke frankly.
“We loved Ann Richards, and she has meant so much to me. I just wept when I heard she had died,” she said.
“She was a woman governor that Texas, people like me in Texas, can be really proud of. … She gave us women a real strong role model,” Hutcheson said.
Richards is survived by her grown children, Cecile Richards, Daniel Richards, Clark Richards and Ellen Richards; their spouses; and eight grandchildren.
The family has requested that memorial gifts be made to the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders at www.austincommunityfoundation.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, September 22, 2006.