AUSTIN – Prominent politicians, celebrities and regular Texans gathered Monday for a final farewell to former Gov. Ann Richards.
Thousands of admirers 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 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.
Richards, a Democrat known for her big, frosty white hair, died Wednesday at the age of 73 from esophageal cancer. She was governor from 1991-95 and was remembered for her for her sharp wit and dedication to fighting for women and minorities.
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 during a private service earlier Monday at the Texas State Cemetery. 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."
Former President Bill Clinton paid tribute to Richards on Saturday as a woman who had "a big heart, big dreams, did big deeds."
Richards is survived by her grown children, Cecile Richards, Daniel Richards, Clark Richards and Ellen Richards; their spouses; and eight grandchildren.