Everyone in Delaware knew Ruth Ann.
They knew her story, how she was raised on a farm south of Milford, right off Cedar Creek, the daughter of a sharecropper, dropping out of school to help her family farm, fish and crab. They knew she suffered tremendous loss — her first husband, her second husband, then her youngest son. They knew that she returned to school, got her GED, took classes at Del Tech. They knew she worked for the Delaware crop reporting service, driving to fields across the 1,990-square-mile state, her kids in the backseat, to count ears of corn and soybean pods. They remember how she couldn’t get a loan, because she was widowed and therefore a woman without a man’s signature. They knew how she started in politics, first as a clerk in the governor’s office before running to become a state representative, then a state senator, then lieutenant governor and then governor — the first and only woman to hold the seat in the history of Delaware.
When Gov. Ruth Ann Minner died in November at the age of 86, she was remembered as a trailblazer, though that was never the thing she ran on. Those who knew her, including the sitting president of the United States, another child of Delaware, remember her hard work, her dry sense of humor, her tough policy battles and her connection to the people of her state, especially the ones who saw something of themselves in her image.
“What she did was groundbreaking,” Gary Patterson, one of her closest former advisers, told me. “Did we look at polls? Certainly. But did they drive her life? No, no. She had an inner-fire that told her what to do.”
Minner was a “progressive before we knew what to call it,” the current governor, John Carney, said at her funeral service this fall. Her accomplishments as governor, a seat she held for two terms beginning in 2001, also can be seen as a mirror of her own past and her struggles. Having scrambled to get her GED so she could provide for her kids after the death of her first husband, she made college tuition-free for students who kept up their grades. Having lost her second husband to cancer in 1991, she fought to pass an indoor smoking ban, making Delaware the first state to enact a comprehensive smoke-free law, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The smoking ban was the biggest fight of her career. State legislators tried to water down the bill. She said no, nearly paying dearly for it in her narrow reelection campaign. When she walked parade routes, protesters threw cigarettes as she passed by, chanting, “BAN RUTH ANN.” But Minner wasn’t the type to dwell on setbacks, or make herself the center of the story. “Just imagine if I had said, ‘Woe is me. I’m a widow with three kids with nowhere to go, no job and no education,’” Minner said in a podcast on the occasion of her 85th birthday. “I could still be back there saying, ‘Woe is me.’”
Minner was known for the attention she paid to voters. As a state senator, she kept boxes of index cards, one for every person in her district. Each time she interacted with one of those voters, new notes would go down on the designated card. “I could just see in her interactions with people throughout the state that she got them, and they got her,” said Jack Markell, who succeeded Minner as governor in 2009.
Her former chief of staff, Mark Brainard, once recalled watching Minner sit down for coffee at Woodburn, the governor’s residence in Dover, with the cook and butler, “and she would know everything about their families.” The very next week, at a meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington, Brainard noticed Minner huddled with President George W. Bush, talking about homeland security. “And I thought, ‘Those two images are the images that are forever locked in,’” Brainard said in a January 2020 interview, “because she was such a unique personality to be able to connect in a very real personal human way with everyone from the cook in Woodburn, to state employees working in a variety of different functions, to the president of the United States.”
Minner loved fishing. She loved fast cars. And she loved her three sons, Frank Jr., Wayne and Gary. She held an annual crab feast in Milford, her hometown down-state, a more conservative Delaware than what you find in New Castle County. Minner’s family would set up the tents and prepare the side dishes. And she would be there in her apron, cooking the crabs for friends and staff. “She was the same with everybody,” said Markell.
She was also smart, and she could be tough. Minner was 65 when she became governor. Running as a woman? “It’s different,” she once said. During an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” on the week of her swearing-in, the host Charlie Gibson asked, “Do you ever just pinch yourself and say, ‘Ruthie, my God, look what you’ve done.’” Minner quickly replied, “Well, I don’t think I ever say Ruthie.”
Minner took great pride in helping Delaware’s most famous politician, Joe Biden, reach the U.S. Senate in the early 1970s, when she was a member of a local women’s club. “Joe Biden says it’s really the group of people who got him elected in the first place,” Markell said of the club. “He never forgot that.” Nearly 50 years later, on the night he was elected president, Biden took the stage in Wilmington, peered over the socially distanced crowd, and in the front row, perched atop a Jeep that campaign staffers had placed near the stage, he spotted Minner’s smiling face. “Is that Ruth Ann?!” he said before beginning his acceptance speech. “Former Governor Ruth Ann Minner!”
The two of them shared Delaware, the “small wonder” of the country. But they also had in common something deeper and more fundamental. She knew loss, Biden said at Minner’s funeral service, addressing the pews in the Milford Church of the Nazarene, and she understood that “human beings are human beings.”
When you’ve been through things, the president continued, “People go up to you and say, ‘I know how you feel.’” You know they mean well, he said. But after a while, “you feel like saying, ‘You have no idea how I feel.’” Minner was different. “You know she knows. And just seeing her continue to walk, continue to speak out, continue to embrace the family that’s left, you think to yourself, ‘Maybe I can do that.’”
“We loved her back here in Delaware,” Biden said.