Thomas Fields-Meyer
June 18, 2001 12:00 PM

In the fifth of PEOPLE’S occasional series on the 13 women currently in the U.S. Senate, we profile Olympia Snowe. The Republican from Maine has overcome a series of heartbreaking personal misfortunes, emerging to take her place as a dogged fighter for women’s rights while also finding peace at home.

With sleet pounding down that blustery Maine night in April 1973, Olympia Snowe was worried about her husband, Peter. The 30-year-old Republican state legislator was getting ready to drive the half hour home to Lewiston from the capitol in Augusta. “I called him up,” Snowe, now 54, recalls, “and said, ‘You ought to be careful.’ ” Just a few hours later she received the devastating news: As Peter tried to pass a vehicle on the turnpike, his Ford Bronco skidded and flipped, killing him almost instantly.

For weeks Snowe stayed home in tears. “There wasn’t more that I could do about it,” she says, “than try to absorb it.” It wasn’t the first time she had faced personal tragedy. When Snowe was 8, her mother died of breast cancer; Snowe’s father died a year later of a heart attack. This time, just as she had as a child, Snowe showed her toughness. “I just figured I had to draw a positive from it,” she says. “I was not going to allow it to be negative.”

So Snowe ran for her late husband’s seat in the legislature, winning easily and launching a political career that would take her to Congress and, in 1994, the U.S. Senate. There, elected last November to her second term, she has made a name as a political maverick, a champion of women’s issues, a bridge builder—and a survivor. “Her life has been marked by tragedies that would have discouraged a lesser person,” says fellow Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins. “I admire her ability to overcome adversity.”

She has won every election she has entered and more federal elections than any Maine politician since World War II. “You end up really rooting for her, even when you don’t always agree with her,” says Becky Rand, 46, a single mother of six who runs a popular waterfront cafe in Portland and admires Snowe’s compassion. In Washington, too, Snowe has few critics, despite diverging frequently from her party on such issues as abortion rights (which she supports), President Clinton’s impeachment (which she opposed) and President Bush’s tax cut, on which she fought Republican leaders to favor a tax credit for the working poor. Whatever her position, she works tirelessly. Says Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.): “You want her as your colleague at the barricades.”

Little in her modest youth seemed to foretell such success for Olympia Jean Bouchles, born Feb. 21, 1947, in Augusta, where her parents, George and Georgia, a Greek immigrant and a daughter of Greek immigrants, ran a diner near the state capitol. So poor that they had no car or phone, the couple—who also had son John, now 57 and a Lewiston high school administrator—so stressed education that George was dismayed to learn that Olympia’s kindergarten was only half a day. “He was convinced,” she says, “that I was getting off on the wrong foot.”

After battling breast cancer, Georgia died in 1955. Working as a night-shift cook at a restaurant in Lewiston, where the family had moved three years earlier, George feared he couldn’t care for both children, so while John stayed home, he sent Olympia to St. Basil’s Academy, a Greek Orthodox girls’ school in New York State that gave her a scholarship. It was there, in November 1956, that she was told her father had died. Though Snowe grappled with what had befallen her and John (then taken in by a relative), she says, “I didn’t have the luxury of trying to figure out why. You just don’t have any choice but to think, ‘How are you going to survive this?’ ”

She stayed at St. Basil’s (where she won her first election, as dorm president) until she turned 15, then moved in with her mother’s brother, James Goranites, a barber who died in 1963, and his wife, Mary, now 87, a textile mill worker. They treated her like one of their own five children. “My mother made it feel like she was to be treasured,” says Georgia Chomas, 57, Olympia’s cousin.

While studying political science at the University of Maine in Orono, she began dating Peter Snowe, a friend of her cousins’ who shared her passion for politics. They married in 1969, and in 1972 he was elected to the legislature. At the same time, Olympia worked as an aide to freshman Maine Rep. William Cohen (later a U.S. senator and then Secretary of Defense under President Clinton). Just four months into Peter’s term came the car crash. Within weeks, at the urging of party officials, she ran for his seat. Though Snowe had initially hesitated, the campaign was therapeutic. “It forced me to focus,” she says, “to get up every morning and do something.”

When Cohen, her former boss, ran for the Senate in 1978, she ran for his congressional seat and became one of just 16 women in the House, where she would serve eight terms. She also found romance, dating John “Jock” McKernan Jr., who had been a friend and colleague of her late husband’s and who in 1982 became Maine’s other congressman. Mikulski, a member of Congress at the time, recalls spotting the two holding hands late one night in the House dining room while Mikulski met with then-Rep. Geraldine Ferraro. “We started singing ‘Some Enchanted Evening,’ ” recalls Mikulski. “We loved it!” McKernan became Maine’s governor in 1987, and two years later the couple married. “It boils down to my having to convince her that after 10 years of dating we really ought to take the risk,” says McKernan, 53. “She was being very cautious.”

The marriage would bring joy—and more heartache. Snowe had developed a close relationship with McKernan’s son from his first marriage, Peter. He was 20 and a Dartmouth sophomore in 1991 when he collapsed during baseball practice and died from a previously undetected coronary ailment. “I thought I had been through everything until that,” she says. “It’s the one death that I cannot resolve in my mind.”

Yet she plunged forward, winning election in 1994 to the Senate, where she continued to defy political labels and follow her instincts. “I realized that I should focus on some of the issues that were important to women,” says Snowe, who has worked to include more women in federally backed medical studies and to secure increased funding for breast and ovarian cancer research. She has also led the fight—without success—to urge her party to remove antiabortion planks from its platform. “She doesn’t tailor her views to fit a political trend,” says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

Her long hours—often until 10 at night—limit time with McKernan, who is almost constantly on the road as an executive for a national company that runs for-profit colleges. The couple avoid political talk on weekends and enjoy playing tennis, renting videos (particularly adventure flicks) or relaxing at their two Maine homes—one in Falmouth, the other in coastal Hancock, where they occasionally spend summer afternoons sailing. Clearly Snowe relishes stolen moments with a husband who shares both her sorrows and victories. “I have a wonderful partner in life,” she says. “We’ve been able to ride the waves together.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Susan Gray Gose in Washington, D.C., and Eric Francis in Portland

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