By Nick Charles
March 05, 2001 12:00 PM

Struggling to provide for her three children in 1967, Ruth Ann Minner was desperate for a new car. The best job the 32-year-old widowed high school dropout could find involved driving from farm to farm along the back roads of southern Delaware, counting rows, ears and kernels of corn for government surveys, and her 1963 Chevy was dying. But dealers refused to let her take out a loan for a car. They’d say, ” ‘Oh, you’re single; we need a man to sign for the loan,’ ” she recalls.

Deflated and offended, Minner turned to banks. But they too required a male signature. Years later, in 1974, when Minner was urged to run for state office, the sexist slights helped her make up her mind. “That was really the reason I ran,” says Minner, who successfully lobbied bankers in the state to grant loans to women more freely. “I had no intention of making a career of it.”

But even though she entered politics with modest intentions, she blew through the ranks and in January was sworn in as Delaware’s first female governor. “I never expected to end up where I am,” says Minner, 66, who in 26 years has never lost an election. Rival pols marvel at her steady ascent—four terms as a state representative followed by three as a state senator and two as lieutenant governor. “I don’t mean for this to sound like a cliché,” says Donna D. Stone, a Republican state legislator, “but Ruth Ann is just the living example of the American dream.”

Born outside Milford, Del., the youngest of five children of tenant farmers Samuel and Mary Ann Coverdale, Minner lost a battle to tradition at 16. An excellent student who also drove a tractor, milked cows and tended crops on the family farm, Minner was told by her father to quit school. “It was hard,” she says. “But it was expected of us.”

Within a year she was a bride, marrying her eighth-grade sweet-heart, Frank Ingram. Together they started a pesticide business in Milford, but in 1967 Ingram, only 34, died of a heart attack, leaving Minner with three young children and a mortgage. With few job prospects, she returned to school and took classes down the hall from her oldest son, Frank Jr., now 48, who was in the eighth grade. “All of us did our homework together,” says son Wayne, 44. Minner eventually got her G.E.D.

For support, Minner leaned on family friend Roger Minner, a tow-truck operator whose marriage had broken up and who began spending more time entertaining Minner’s sons in his shop. “I always kid that he dated them for a year before he asked me out,” she says. The couple married in 1969 and started a towing company, which Minner—Roger died of cancer in 1991—still runs with Wayne and youngest son Gary, 39 (Frank Jr. is a high school teacher in Milford).

When she found time, Minner volunteered, stuffing envelopes for the state’s Democratic party, and in 1973 Gov. Sherman Tribbitt hired her as his receptionist. A year and a half later the party backed her as state representative from her district. “I was scared to death of campaigning,” says Minner, whose grand-mother was a midwife. “I’d knock on the door, and they’d say, ‘I’ve heard about you. Your grandmother delivered my children.’ ”

Throughout her career her no-airs ability to connect with constituents has served her well. “She’s always been the same,” says Lucy Schuler, Minner’s hairdresser, who for more than 20 years has given her the same 30-minute shampoo, cut and blow-dry. Though having left the simple life at home in Milford and settled in at the governor’s Georgian mansion in Dover, Minner still shops off the rack—her inaugural gown was from Lord & Taylor—and insists that everyone “keep calling me Ruth Ann.”

At her Jan. 3 official swearing-in, Minner, who ordinarily doesn’t make her gender an issue, held her worn Bible for the 10th time, standing next to her three daughters-in-law. “I guess I wanted to say that we did it—women!” says Minner. “You could say if I did something purely for women, I did that.”

Nick Charles

Susan Gray Gose in Delaware