MILFORD — Evidently, if you ask the staff of Wawa, the governors before and after Ruth Ann Minner paled in comparison to her.
Speaking at Milford Church of the Nazarene on Wednesday, Gov. John Carney said that when former Gov. Jack Markell stopped by the convenience store ahead of the funeral for Gov. Minner, he was told, “Well, I can’t say much for you as governor, but that Ruth Ann, she was something.”
“And I’ve got to tell you,” Gov. Carney said, “I know how you feel.”
Friends, family and Delaware’s political leaders — as well as President Joe Biden — gathered at the small Milford church to remember the life of Gov. Minner, who served as both the state’s first female lieutenant governor and its first female governor.
Recalling his time as her lieutenant governor — she always introduced him as such — Gov. Carney said he thought it was special for her to include him and to view him as part of her team.
“But I also have to realize that there was also a subtle message there: ‘I’m the governor, and I’m the boss,’” he said. “And that was OK with me.”
That, he said, became clear when they were campaigning. Because people backed her, they believed in him, too, he said.
“She just had this unbelievable popular appeal,” he said. “And as I thought about it this week, I think it came from the adversity that she struggled through and overcame in her own life. Growing up poor, mourning the loss of both of her husbands, being the only woman in the room. She governed from this deeply human place. She had a real understanding of human suffering and struggle and unfairness and pain.”
Biden, Carper pay tribute
That popularity in Delaware was remembered by President Biden, too.
When he decided to run for the U.S. Senate, he remembers visiting Milford and thinking, “I’m in hostile territory,” he said during the funeral service, getting a laugh from the crowd.
“My politics weren’t what everybody expected,” he said, addressing the Minner family. “But your mom went out and talked about me. Your mom brought your family and our friends together. That’s when I figured it out: All I needed in Milford was Ruth Ann.”
Reading from the Book of James, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper said Gov. Minner “showed us her faith by her deeds.”
“She was more than just a person of faith. She lived her faith,” he said. “She lived her life in accordance with the two great commandments: Love thy Lord, thy God, with all thy heart, all thy soul and all thy mind, and love thy neighbor as thyself.”
She did not have it easy, Sen. Carper said, “and, man, did she prevail.”
Born Jan. 17, 1935, Ruth Ann Coverdale grew up on a tenant farm, near Milford, eventually leaving school at age 16 to work on the family farm. At 32, she found herself widowed with three sons to raise. In the years that followed, she worked two jobs, earned her GED diploma and went to college.
She was elected to her first office, the state House of Representatives, in 1974. She went on to the Delaware Senate, before she ran on the Democratic ticket with then-Gov. Carper as lieutenant governor in 1992. After reelection in 1996, she set her eye on the governorship. And in 2000, she was elected.
Early into her first term, she pushed for the Clean Indoor Air Act, even though she knew it may cost reelection.
Longtime friend and her secretary of state, Harriet Smith Windsor, remembered telling Gov. Minner to consider delaying her support of the legislation because it was steeped in controversy.
“Well, you can imagine. She looked across at me and said, ‘Harriet, I really do appreciate your caring for me, but just suppose we don’t get a second term? It’s the right thing to do.’ How can I ever forget those words?” Ms. Windsor said at Wednesday’s service.
The legislation, which banned smoking in most indoor areas, went into effect in 2002.
Gov. Minner would go on to be reelected four years later and, during her second term, would enact initiatives like the Student Excellence Equals Degree scholarship, reading specialists in every elementary school and math specialists in every middle school, full-day kindergarten and common-sense gun safety, according to a release from the state Senate.
Though it was a somber occasion, the funeral service for Gov. Minner had moments of levity fitting a woman who took her position seriously but with kindness, a sense of humor and care for her constituents.
‘A role model’
When U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester stood at the pulpit, she took those gathered to church.
“Giving all honor and glory to God, to the clergy, Mr. President, to the elected officials, to friends, so many friends, and to the family, especially, good afternoon,” she said, but receiving no “good afternoons” in return.
“OK, I come from the Black church. I’m doing the prayer. Call and response is what we call it. Call and you respond. Good afternoon,” Rep. Blunt Rochester repeated, this time receiving a chorus of replies.
Later in the service, President Biden referred to her as “the Rev. Blunt Rochester,” saying “That girl can preach.”
“Most of us called her Ruth Ann because we loved her, and we love her,” the congresswoman said. “But we also called her ‘governor’ because she earned it.”
In her remarks, Rep. Blunt Rochester called Gov. Minner a role model.
“She was a person who did not let labels define her, and for many of us, that means a lot,” she said. “Whether you called her a woman, whether you called her a sharecropper’s daughter, whether you called her a widow — and I know how that feels — she went from GED to Woodburn, the governor’s mansion.”
While Gov. Minner was known for her “backbone made of steel,” said Gov. Carney, she was also remembered for the tender moments.
“Family came first for her,” he said, recalling how her eyes would light up when she talked about her children and her granddaughter’s “softball exploits” or anything else related to her kin.
“And it wasn’t just her family that she cared about,” he said. “She thought everyone’s family should come first. And she was warm and welcoming to the families of those who worked closely with her.”
Though not a Delaware native, Jennifer “J.J.” Davis — who served as deputy secretary of education during Gov. Minner’s first term as lieutenant governor — said that upon meeting her, she was assured they would get along well as long as she learned “the Delaware way.”
“We will argue, vehemently disagree, but at the end of the day, we are all friends and, believe it or not, several of us are family,” Ms. Davis explained.
Though Gov. Minner held the highest office in the state, Ms. Davis said she remained dedicated to her family and to ensuring that those around her had a work-life balance.
“To say that the highest priority was her family and friends is simply an understatement,” Ms. Davis said.
She added that Gov. Minner would always start their meeting by asking how her children were doing — even if they were in the middle of a disagreement.
It was around the time that Ms. Davis and her husband were looking to start a family that Gov. Minner asked her to serve as director of the Office of Management & Budget. Ms. Davis said she was scared accepting this high-level role but more so by the idea of losing a family balance — having been raised by a single father, Ms. Davis said she didn’t have a working mother in her life to model herself after.
It was Gov. Minner who gave her the reassurance she needed and who ultimately served as her role model.
“She was very explicit with me that day. She said, ‘You can do this job, and you can be a mother,’” Ms. Davis said.
“You might get it done differently than those before you, but you will do it,” she was told.
Gov. Minner was right, “of course,” Ms. Davis said.
She went on to recall that one of her favorite photos of her time with the governor is of her then-toddler Maddie — now 20 and a funeral attendee — seated on Gov. Minner’s lap reading a Sesame Street book.
“So what if it was in the middle of Senate confirmations?” Ms. Davis said. “Maddie had simply walked up to Ruth Ann and said, ‘bop,’ which at that point meant ‘up,’ and then ‘reed,’ which meant ‘read.’ And Gov. Minner just did what was needed.”
A life of loss
In the days following her passing, many have spoken to Gov. Minner’s life as being one marked by loss — her first husband died suddenly from a heart attack and her second husband to lung cancer. Many, too, have spoken to her politics being motivated by a need to ensure that others didn’t have to live through what she lived through.
With that loss came the ability to comfort those in pain because she’d lived through it — she knew what it felt like. In his speech, President Biden spoke to Gov. Minner’s compassion and empathy, which he experienced firsthand.
“The Minner family knows that when you have serious loss, people go up to you and say, ‘I know how you feel,” he said. “You know they mean well, but after a while, especially if you’re well-known, you feel like saying, ‘You have no damn idea how I feel.’”
After losing his son, Beau, President Biden said Gov. Minner was a source of comfort for him and especially for his wife, Jill Biden. He said seeing Gov. Minner’s ability to keep going served as an inspiration.
“Many of you have had significant loss. You know when it happens. You feel like you have a black hole in your chest — you’re being sucked into it,” President Biden said. “There’s certain people that come along, they just kind of reach down and keep you from sinking. Ruth Ann was one of those people who helped a lot.”
As she opened the memorial service Wednesday, Ms. Windsor told attendees that she had “wept with a broken heart” at the loss.
Ms. Windsor went on to recall a time when her own husband was ill at ChristianaCare, and the governor arrived at noon and remained there until he passed at midnight.
“And what was she doing? She was taking charge. She was asking if everybody was OK. She was feeding all of us,” she said. “She went to each person that was there — and some of you were to support us — and say, ‘What can I do for you? What do you need?’”
During the visit, Ms. Windsor’s in-laws, who were Maryland residents, asked who the friend was.
“You should have seen their faces when I said, ‘Oh, that’s the governor of the state of Delaware,’” she said.