Lee Hart, Wife of Ex-Colo. Senator and Presidential Hopeful Rocked by Affair Scandal, Dies at 85

"She was always there to comfort us," her son said. "She meant a lot to us in so many different ways"

Lee Hart, Gary Hart
From left: Lee and Gary Hart. Photo: Richard Sobol/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty

Lee Hart, the wife of former Sen. Gary Hart, whose 1988 presidential run infamously collapsed due to reports that he was having an extramarital affair, has died, PEOPLE confirms. She was 85.

Lee died on Friday at a hospital in Lakewood, Colorado, her family says. A cause of death was not given, though she'd had a "brief illness," according to the family.

In a tribute shared with PEOPLE, Lee's family remembered her as a high-school English teacher and then an active member of her community in Colorado and, later in life, as an avid traveler.

She was also something of a naturalist — "especially birds which she cared for around her home" — and, in her 60s, climbed the hills of Uganda "to visit a mountain gorilla family." Relatives said it was a "lifelong dream."

"She was very tough and very nurturing," her son told The Denver Post. "There were times when she was a mom. There were times when she was a friend. She was always there to comfort us. She meant a lot to us in so many different ways."

Born Oletha "Lee" Ludwig in Lawrence, Kansas, on Feb. 20, 1936, she went on to marry Gary in the summer of 1958 and stood by his side as he decided to leave his job at a major Denver firm and, in 1970, join South Dakota Sen. George McGovern's presidential campaign.

Four years later, Gary won a seat representing Colorado in the Senate — which, as PEOPLE reported in a 1987 profile, opened up a rift as Lee struggled alone to manage the careful balance of her career and raising their two children, Andrea and John.

"Politics is lonely as hell," Lee once said, according to the PEOPLE report.

The couple even separated in both 1979 and 1981 but reconciled and, at the time of Lee's death, they had been married for more than 60 years.

"We have never, ever, stopped loving one another," Lee said during the 1984 campaign. "Our marriage was only tremendously strengthened."

Lee Hart, Gary Hart
Lee and Gary Hart. Glen Martin/The Denver Post via Getty

Gary first sought the Democratic presidential nomination himself in 1984 but lost out to former Vice President Walter Mondale. He ran again for the 1988 race and was widely considered the front-runner — that is, until news reports of an extramarital relationship caused him to withdraw.

At the time, Gary was said to be having an affair with young Miami model Donna Rice. Gary denied it, as did his wife.

"I love my husband very much," Lee said during a campaign appearance in New Hampshire, per the Times. "I know Gary better than anyone else, and when Gary says nothing happened, nothing happened."

Gary officially dropped out of the presidential race in 1987. He later attempted to revive his campaign, and Lee gave her support.

"'I'm doing what I always wanted to do," she reportedly said at the time, "traveling with Gary." (The saga was the basis of a 2018 film starring Hugh Jackman.)

Gary Hart, Lee Hart
Gary and Lee Hart. Ira Wyman/Sygma via Getty

A family friend, Bill Shore, told the Post that despite the couple's troubles, their bond endured.

"They had been through a lot, all the highs and lows, just a part of being human," Shore said. "They were at their best in love and more than that they were best friends for all these years. In the end, they were watching out for each other's best interest. They wanted to be together and wanted to make it work. That was a testament to how strong that love and friendship was."

In their tribute, Lee's family said that she had taken to remarking to friends how "she had lived a far more rich and eventful life than she had ever dared imagine."

Lee is survived by her husband; their two children; her sister, former Rep. Martha Keys of Kansas; and two grandchildren.

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