Former U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan, the first woman to represent Missouri in the Senate, has died at 90


Former U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan, who became the first female senator to represent Missouri after she was appointed to replace her husband following his death, died Tuesday. She was 90.

Carnahan, a Democrat, was appointed to the Senate in 2001 after the posthumous election of her husband, Gov. Mel Carnahan, and she served until 2002.

“Mom passed peacefully after a long and rich life. She was a fearless trailblazer. She was brilliant, creative, compassionate and dedicated to her family and her fellow Missourians,” her family said in a statement.

Her family did not specify the cause of death but said Carnahan died after a brief illness at a hospice facility in suburban St. Louis.

Carnahan was born Dec. 20, 1933, in Washington, D.C., and grew up in the nation’s capital. Her father worked as a plumber and her mother as a hairdresser.

She met Mel Carnahan, the son of a Missouri congressman, at a church event, and they became better acquainted after sitting next to each other at a class in high school, according to information provided by the family. They were married on June 12, 1954.

Jean Carnahan graduated a year later from George Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in business and public administration, and they later raised four children on a farm near Rolla, Missouri.

She served as first lady of Missouri after her husband’s election as governor in 1992 and through his two terms.

On Oct. 16, 2000, the governor, the couple’s son, Roger, and an aide died in a plane crash. After Mel Carnahan was elected posthumously three weeks later, acting Gov. Roger Wilson appointed Jean Carnahan to fill the seat left vacant by her husband’s death.

She served from Jan. 3, 2001, to Nov. 25, 2002.

After her appointment, Carnahan gave a speech in the Senate in which she noted her tragic path to the chamber.

“My name has never been on a ballot. On election night, there was no victory celebration,” she said. “You are here because of your win. I am here because of my loss. But we are all here to do the work of this great nation.”

Roy Temple, a longtime aide to the Carnahans and Jean Carnahan’s chief of staff, said he saw Carnahan at her 90th birthday celebration last year and told her, “Jean, you are like a flower that blooms wherever you are planted.”

“She just did everything with a boundless amount of smarts and wit and creativity,” Temple said. “Whatever she was doing — if it was planning a party or it was pushing for legislation, it was just in her nature to do it all the way.”

Temple said that although Carnahan was only in the Senate for two years, she served at an extraordinary time. While there, she lost her house in a fire and was recovering from the loss of her husband and son. She was there during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and she was working in the Hart Senate Office Building during the anthrax scare – Temple remembers working with her in a hideaway in the basement of the Capitol at that time.

“It was an extraordinary and stressful time and she did the job well and with great dignity,” Temple said. “It was a privilege to work with her.”

Temple said Carnahan and then-Sen. Joe Biden had a bond because he was one of the few people who had suffered similar loss and could understand what she was going through.

Carnahan was the author of seven books, including two about the Missouri governor’s mansion and an autobiography that focused on her years as first lady and as a senator.

A private family service will be held at Carson Hill Cemetery near Ellsinore, Missouri, where Carnahan’s husband and son are buried. A public service is being planned in St. Louis, with details expected to be announced later.

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