Teresa Heinz (search) was terrified at the suggestion her husband should run for president. "Over my dead body," she would say.

She preferred to be a mother. She wanted to live and work in relative quiet. She wanted some semblance of privacy, as much as she could muster as the wife of a popular U.S. senator.

Fate intervened.

Her husband, Republican Sen. John Heinz (search) of Pennsylvania, was killed in a plane crash in 1991, cutting short a rising political career and leaving his wife, the mother of their three sons, a widow and heiress to the $500 million family ketchup fortune.

More than a decade later, Teresa Heinz Kerry is again the wife of a senator who would be president.

This time, though, she doesn't approach the prospect with terror. She has embraced it. And friends and political observers say that's lucky for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, because his wife's candor and survivor attitude have complemented his sometimes aloof nature, helping Kerry to become the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.

"I realize both through the work I'm doing and everything that's happening in the world and in our own country, we have to put ourselves forth, and that it's going to take all of our effort to really improve the country," Heinz Kerry said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

That's not to say Teresa was immediately warm to the idea of Kerry running for the White House, which inevitably has taken her away from her full-time work on environmental, health care and women's issues as head of the $1.2 billion Heinz Foundation endowment.

"I decided at my age I have no more right to be selfish. That's how I decided," she said.

Heinz Kerry, 65, has plenty of experience with major life changes.

Teresa Simoes-Ferreira grew up in the then-Portuguese colony of Mozambique in East Africa, the daughter of a Portuguese physician and a mother who was part Italian, Swiss-German and French. She fondly recalls her childhood playground as being the African savanna, but she also remembers life in a dictatorship and the stamp on her passport declaring her a "second-class citizen," as was standard practice for second-generation-born white Africans.

She speaks five languages and was studying in Geneva to be an interpreter when she met her first husband, who was on break from graduate school. The couple married in 1966 and had three sons. She became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1971, and joined the Republican Party.

Heinz introduced his wife to Kerry in 1990 on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. They met again at the Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992, a year after her husband's death. She did not immediately know she'd fall in love with him.

"We're too old to know right away," she laughed. "I knew right away that it was fun to talk to him because he got my sense of humor. I can be myself with him and that's great. That's the highest compliment you can give anybody."

But Kerry's eyes and his smile eventually captured her heart, she said. She married the man she calls "magical" with children in a 1995 ceremony witnessed by her three sons and his two daughters from a marriage that had ended in divorce years earlier.

"It was just wonderful to watch this relationship blossom," said Bruce Droste, who has been a friend of Kerry's for more than 30 years.

Heinz Kerry helped take Kerry out of the "gypsy life" that he'd maintained after his divorce, Droste said. He gained someone with whom to share his passion for languages and the environment — and a formidable adversary for dinner-table debates.

"He's always very thoughtful, very deliberate, and she'll all of a sudden rip it apart," Droste said. This is not a fight — it's lively dinner conversation at the Kerry household.

Heinz Kerry admits the talks can get intense.

"Some people call it serious," she said. "I call it interesting."

Indeed, the discourse along the campaign trail is what keeps Heinz Kerry intrigued — and what intrigues many people who have seen her. She took her husband's name only when he entered the presidential race, as did the wives of Howard Dean and Bill Clinton, and switched to the Democratic Party, in part to be able to vote for him.

"She's in touch with so many important issues that are associated with this country: the environment, human rights, dealings with issues of poverty and race, and so forth, all of which she's quite conversant in and passionate about," said Bill Strickland, a longtime friend of the Heinzes and president and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corp., a job training center in Pittsburgh.

"I think she'll bring some real intelligence to the conversation," Strickland said.

She is known as a woman who speaks her mind, and her independent spirit and sense of humor are evident on the campaign trail.

She seemed to revel in sharing with a national TV audience that her husband learned of his Iowa victory while he was shaving and his New Hampshire win while in the shower. "So it seems to be a bathroom event," she said with a grin.

Her affinity for rich discourse also is reflected in the increasingly public role she's playing in her husband's campaign. She has been on the road nearly as much as he has — most often in different locations so they can cover more ground.

Her attitude toward campaigning now stands in stark contrast to her thoughts a decade ago. Given the chance to run for her late husband's Senate seat, she chose not to, describing modern political campaigns at the time as "the graveyard of real ideas and the birthplace of empty promises."

As for this campaign, she says, "the most gratifying and the greatest lesson is that in the hearts and minds of the American people there is still a kernel of can-do, there is still wanting to hope," admitting she had feared those emotions would have been dulled by terrorism, job losses and health concerns. "People still want to be Americans, in the best sense."

Heinz Kerry pays no mind to remarks about the difference between her passionate, forthright manner and that of her husband, a decorated Vietnam veteran described by friends as shy and contemplative.

"They're impressions and people have their right to have impressions," she said. "I never went to war. I never saw people being killed next to me. I've never had to destroy things. I've had a privileged life that way."

Wealth has extended certain other privileges to Heinz Kerry. She owns homes in Idaho, Nantucket, Mass., Pittsburgh and the Georgetown section of Washington. She has a private jet at her disposal. She and Kerry once paid to have a fire hydrant moved from near their $7 million home in the historic Beacon Hill section of Boston after her car was ticketed for parking too close.

But wealth did not mitigate tragedy. She lost a sister at age 19, her grandmother and a teenage cousin and her mother's sister — all in car crashes. Still, she refuses to let fear of what may happen to her — or her husband, should he become president — govern how she lives.

"Whatever happens, we're only here for a short time in any case. ... It's not all in our hands," she said. "We're all in God's hands. I believe that, otherwise I would be tormented in the past and now."