Ruth Ann Minner, who was raised by a sharecropper and dropped out of high school but went on to become the first and only woman to serve as governor of Delaware, died on Thursday at the Delaware Hospice Center in Milford. She was 86.
The cause was complications of a fall, said Lisa Peel, one of her granddaughters.
At her memorial service on Wednesday in Milford, President Biden spoke at length about Ms. Minner, calling her “a dear friend” and “one of the most remarkable and inspirational people I got to meet.” Mr. Biden, a former U.S. senator from Delaware, said he and she had often spoken when one or the other was “in trouble politically.”
Ms. Minner, a middle-of-the-road Democrat who was conservative on fiscal matters and progressive on social issues, served as governor from 2001 to 2009. A strong promoter of health care and a clean environment, she made headlines in 2002 for successfully pushing through one of the nation’s first smoking bans in public places, despite fierce opposition from many in Delaware’s powerful business community.
She also successfully pushed for several education initiatives, including the first scholarship program in the nation to offer free college access to students who kept up their grades and stayed out of trouble. She implemented full-day kindergarten as well.
Her other signal achievement was preserving and protecting the state’s open spaces, particularly its farmland and forests.
Known for her no-nonsense approach and lack of pretense, Ms. Minner, who grew up during the Depression in a rural coastal area on the Delaware Bay, brought a down-to-earth style to the state capitol in Dover, where a political columnist called her the “Aunt Bee” of state government, a reference to the family matriarch on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“She was a leader who had a real common touch,” Gov. John Carney, who served as her lieutenant governor, said in a statement. Having grown up poor, he added, “she brought that perspective to her job every day, and she never lost her attachment to those roots.”
At the memorial service, Mr. Biden extolled her ability to empathize with people, especially people in pain, and noted that without fanfare or fancy language she stayed grounded and got the job done.
Breaking the gender barrier when she was elected governor was not important to her, Ms. Minner told The Associated Press in 2000.
“I’ve found out since the election, though, that it does matter to a lot of women,” she added. “It matters to a lot of young girls.”
Ruth Ann Coverdale was born on Jan. 17, 1935, in Milford, Del., the youngest of five children, and was raised in nearby Slaughter Neck. Her father, Samuel Coverdale, was a sharecropper, and her mother, Mary Ann (Lewis) Coverdale, was a homemaker.
She left high school at 16 to work on the family farm. At 17 she married Frank R. Ingram, her junior high school sweetheart. The couple had three sons.
Mr. Ingram died of a heart attack at 34 in 1967. In 1969 she married Roger Minner, with whom she operated a car-towing business. He died of cancer in 1991.
She is survived by two sons, Frank Ingram Jr. and Wayne Ingram; seven grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren. Her son Gary L. Ingram died in 2016.
Having dropped out of high school, Ms. Minner was determined to make something of herself — and to show her sons that dropping out was not OK.
She started by earning her high school equivalency diploma while working as a statistician with the Maryland Crop Reporting Service. She briefly attended Delaware Technical and Community College before landing a job as a clerk in the Delaware House of Representatives, where, she told The New York Times in 2001, she was able to study the ins and outs of statehouse politicking.
She transferred to an office job with Sherman W. Tribbitt, a state representative. When he was elected governor in 1972, he brought her along as his receptionist. And then she ran for office herself.
“I never had any intention of getting deeply involved in politics,” Ms. Minner told The Times. “But it finally got down to proving some things to myself.”
She was elected to the State House in 1974. After eight years there and nearly a decade in the State Senate, she ran for lieutenant governor in 1992, with Thomas R. Carper at the top of the ticket. They won. In 2000, after two terms as governor, Mr. Carper was elected to the U.S. Senate and Ms. Minner was elected governor, winning 60 percent of the vote.
By then, “she had become comfortable with being the only woman in the room,” Dr. Peel, her granddaughter, said in an interview. And Ms. Minner was one to stick to her guns, she said, to the point of being stubborn. When she made up her mind, there was no arguing with her.
She faced a tough re-election fight four years later; after difficult battles with the legislature and scandals involving the state police and prison system, she squeaked into her second term with 51 percent of the vote.
As Ms. Minner prepared to leave the governor’s office in 2009, Mr. Biden, who had just been elected vice president, participated in a tribute to her, at which he recalled her bruising fight to enact the ban on smoking in public places.
“When we were watching your poll numbers falling precipitously, you did not budge,” he told her. “You were willing to risk your political life to get it done.”
He added: “In this business of politics, the most important question is, what are you willing to lose over? If you can’t answer that question, then it’s all about ego and power and not about principle.”