Former Gov. Ruth Ann Minner's funeral: Joe Biden calls her 'remarkable, inspirational'
President Joe Biden spoke alongside local officials at former Gov. Ruth Ann Minner's funeral in Milford on Wednesday afternoon, hailing the state's first female governor as "one of Delaware's real true pioneers."
"Ruth Ann and I would talk when one of us were in trouble politically or one of us were seeking advice from the other person," Biden told the crowd of service gatherers at the Church of Nazarene in Milford during a 25-minute speech.
"She's one of the most remarkable, inspirational people that Jill and I have met, and that our family's ever known. And we've met a lot of people."
Inspiration was a theme on Wednesday when remembering the late governor, who served as Delaware’s first female governor from 2001 to 2009.
Preceding Biden were Gov. John Carney, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper and Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester, among other speakers, who also remembered a woman who lived out a seemingly cinematic tale of unorthodox political success.
Born in Kent County's Milford Neck, she left the family farm at 17 and dropped out of high school to get married. She raised three sons, was widowed at 32 years old when her husband died of cancer and got her Graduate Equivalency Diploma before becoming a lawmaker.
She started her political career as a legislative aide and receptionist to former Gov. Sherman Tribbitt, then served four terms in the state House and three terms in the state Senate starting in 1974.
The Democrat was sworn into the First State’s highest office at 65 years old. She had previously served two terms as Delaware’s first female lieutenant governor under her predecessor now-U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat.
When she was sworn in as governor, she was still running her late husband’s towing business.
Wednesday's funeral was undoubtedly a celebration of a life well-lived, with attendees smiling and greeting each other under the clear fall sky. The former governor was a reminder of what is possible, despite the political and personal obstacles she faced.
One attendee said he came to pay his respects after meeting Minner just once at a parade because he remembered how nice she was.
Even as she progressed up the political ladder, she stayed grounded in the lives of everyday people, Biden said during his speech.
"You knew she understood," Biden said.
Many who spoke to Delaware Online/The News Journal before and after the service said Minner’s legacy will be her political style of vehemently looking out for the underserved. At the time, it was an unprecedented approach in the Delaware governor’s office but has since become a rock bed for future administrations.
The smoking ban, they said, is a prime example — especially as restaurants and casinos lobbied against the policy, and as the reactionary slogan "Ban Ruth Ann" was bumper-stickered on dissenters' cars. Funeral attendees who spoke to Delaware Online/The News Journal on Wednesday agreed that policy was the hallmark of her tenure.
In 2005, Minner also helped spearhead the Student Excellence Equals Degree Program, which lets high school students in good academic standing get an Associate degree tuition-free.
“For some reason, Tennessee got a lot of the credit for that,” said former Gov. Jack Markell, who attended Wednesday's service. “Ruth Ann Minner did it first.”
They also pointed to her efforts to preserve farmland, as well as being instrumental in bringing services to Sussex County like a veterans’ home and hospice care. Under her administration, the state spent millions of dollars on cancer treatment services for uninsured residents and colorectal cancer screening.
“I think at the time, governors focused on big initiatives like … education, big issues from 30,000 feet,” said Rep. Bryan Shupe, a Republican from Milford. “But I think that Ruth Ann Minner was one of the first to really reach into issues that affected families on the ground.”
While progressive policies today may be viewed in a more academic sense, Minner’s policies could also be considered progressive and came from a deep understanding at a very human level of the struggles of ordinary families, said Gov. Carney.
“She kind of governed inspired by her tough upbringing,” Carney said. “Most important is that she inspired women and young girls to pursue public service. … To a certain extent, we take that for granted now.”
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Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. Reach her at (302) 324-2281 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.