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Gerry Never Yielded

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Twenty-seven years ago, in March 1984, I was hired as outside counsel to the Democratic Platform Committee by its new chair -- a third term Congresswoman widely viewed as a comer because of her huge talent and close relationship with speaker Tip O'Neill.

As we held regional hearings around the country, I got to know Gerry Ferraro: whip smart, highly articulate, knowledgeable, funny, passionate about giving voice to the powerless, equally passionate about her fabulous family, perfect hair, toujours chic and a great girlfriend.

I was pregnant with my fourth child. "Of course you'll name her Geraldine," she said. That was the only time I ever told her no.

When we had completed our work in early June 1984, Gerry marveled at how rewarding the experience had been: "Now it's John's turn..." she said.

Well... that's not quite what happened... And on the fascinating journey that followed, Gerry's beloved John was with her every inch of the way.

The public Gerry has received well deserved attention in recent days.

So let me describe the gifts that the not-so-public Gerry gave me and others over the years.

Hands down, she was the biggest influence on my own decision to run for public office -- not just whether to run, but how to run, how to serve, and how to make certain that I kept my family and friends in the center of my life.

She taught me:

Lesson 1
Be Brave: Gerry never, never refused a challenge. She never said something was too hard to tackle.

Lesson 2
Be Passionate: Her mother's story and her experience as DA shaped her view that the powerless -- especially girls and women -- must have a voice. She became that voice. And when she got sick, she added those who lacked access to the expensive drugs and therapies she could afford to her list of causes.

Lesson 3
Be a Lady: Gerry famously told then-Vice President George H. W. Bush to stop patronizing her, but she did it gracefully. As her health declined everyone in her apartment building -- including the elevator operators -- commented on what a great lady she was.

Lesson 4
Keep family and faith at the center of all you do: She didn't have to work at this. Our long conversations were full of pride about John Sr. - and recognition of his rock-solid support; of admiration for elegant Donna who often put her own needs aside to support her mama; for John Jr. whom she fiercely protected and watched become a talented chef, businessman and father; and for the baby - Laura - whose medical career made her "qvell." And that leaves out spouses, grandchildren, my spouse, children and grandchildren....

Lesson 5
Never Whine: No matter how tough it got she never did.

Lesson 6
Keep Thinking About Tomorrow: At our last long visit, on Valentine's Day, Gerry was planning to get cataract surgery, redecorate her home office, and visit grandson Matthew in Washington this summer when he serves as a Congressional Page.

Those of us in the Ferraro Ya-Ya-Sisterhood were told last December that Gerry would probably not make it past Christmas. We said our painful goodbyes and then marveled as she celebrated the New Year, and the beginning of Spring.

Sidney Harman is the poet in our family, but I will borrow something he might say -- and New York Senator Robert Kennedy loved. The closing lines from the epic poem "Ulysses" go like this:

Tho' much is taken, much abides;

And tho'

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,--

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Gerry never yielded.

Nor should we.

Jane Harman is a former Member of Congress and President and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

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