Rita Clements, The Power Behind a Governor, Dies at 86

The former First Lady of Texas was more than just a hostess. She was a political partner for Governor Bill Clements.

Rita Clements and her husband, Texas Governor Bill Clements, arrive at the White House, in February 1987, for a dinner hosted by President Reagan.

Texas governors once held Christmas parties at the Governor’s Mansion for the capitol news media. They weren’t lavish affairs—just a few canapés and drinks. But it was a night when journalists and the targets of their barbs could call a truce and meet as human beings, rather than as adversaries.

One year, toward the end of Governor Bill Clements’ second term of office, breaking news kept me from going to the Christmas party on time. After completing my story, I thought about heading home, but I hadn’t missed the party in years and Clements served stiff drinks.

When I got to the Governor’s Mansion late that night, most guests had left. The front door opened and Governor Clements, drink in hand, was there to greet me, full of Christmas cheer. He sort of pinned me to the door. I didn’t know what to say for small talk and a polite escape was impossible. So I told him I admired his watch, a fancy and expensive device with many wheels within wheels. He smiled largely, proud that I had noticed. “That’s an oilman’s watch,” he beamed. He started to describe every wheel and how it worked. Then Rita Clements, who had recently overseen a renovation of the Mansion, slid up next to him and put her hand through his arm. She smiled at me graciously and listened as her husband completed his description of the watch. After he finished, she interjected with a soft southern drawl.

“Bill, let this man get a drink.”

Rita Clements was more than just the hostess who helped me get a gin and tonic. She was a power behind a Texas governor who had built a major oil company, served a president, and, in the end, was willing to buck his party dogma to raise taxes to pay for higher education and public schools in the midst of a recession. Bill and Rita Clements were conservatives, and they loved Texas. Rita served on the University of Texas board of regents and focused on education initiatives nationally. She also played a major strategic role in growing the Republican Party of Texas.

She died in her sleep Saturday at the age of 86. The governor was 94 when he died in 2011. Here is the obituary written by her family:

Mrs. Clements, 86, was active politically, philanthropically and in corporate America.

She was born in Newton, Kansas, in 1931 to Mason Crocker and his wife, Florabel. The family moved to Brady, Texas, when she was 10. She was a graduate of The Hockaday School of Dallas in 1949 and graduated with honors from The University of Texas in Austin. She had four children with Richard Bass of Dallas. In 1975, she married Bill Clements, the founder of the oil drilling company SEDCO. He served as Deputy Secretary of Defense under Presidents Nixon and Ford and was elected to two non-consecutive terms as Governor of Texas.

Mrs. Clements was a key strategist in each of Governor Clements’ campaigns and active in preserving the state’s rich heritage through her leadership in the Texas Main Street program, part of the Texas Historic Commission. She also led the renovation of the Governor’s Mansion from 1979-1982.

Mrs. Clements became active politically at an early age as a volunteer for Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 presidential campaign. She was state co-chair for the 1964 presidential campaign for Barry Goldwater. She was appointed to the Republican National Committee in 1973.

She served on a number of corporate boards, including La Quinta Motor Inns and Dr Pepper. Philanthropically, she was a major contributor to the Hockaday School and on the board of The O’Donnell Foundation of Dallas, which focuses on education initiatives nationally.

Mrs. Clements was a passionate advocate of education and served on the University of Texas System Board of Regents, first appointed by Governor George W. Bush and re-appointed by Governor Rick Perry.

She is survived by her brother, Byron Crocker of Beaumont, Texas, as well as four children, Dan Bass of Salt Lake City, and children Jim Bass, Barbara Moroney and Bonnie Smith, all of Dallas. She also has 13 grandchildren.

A memorial service to celebrate her life is set for 11 a.m. on Thursday, January 11 at St. Michaels and All Angels Church in Dallas.

Governor Greg Abbott released a statement on her passing: “Cecilia and I are truly saddened to learn of the death of Rita Clements, and we ask that all Texans join us in keeping the Clements family in their thoughts and prayers. Rita was an true stateswoman who served Texas both on the UT System Board of Regents and as a great steward of the Governors Mansion during her time as First Lady. Texas has suffered a tremendous loss, but Rita leaves behind an incredible legacy.”

Former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura, who also once lived in the Governor’s Mansion, issued this statement: “We are saddened to learn that our friend, Rita Clements, has died. When we think of Rita, we think of a strong Texas woman and a pioneer in the Republican party. She was a wonderful First Lady for the Lone Star State. We remember Rita’s love of history – an interest from which we benefitted when we lived with the collection of historical art and furniture she curated for the Texas Governor’s Mansion. Most of all, we remember a friend whose beloved family and state loved her back and will miss her.”

Rita Clements was someone who should be remembered for her deeds beyond serving as First Lady of Texas, more for her service to the state, and—by far more—than getting me a Christmas drink.