She survived a mastectomy at 97. She made her own dress for her 100th birthday party, and she played bridge with intensity until she was in her 101th year and it become difficult for her to distinguish clubs from spades.

Now, having taken the Florida sun during the worst months of winter, she is getting ready to go home to eastern Tennessee, where she can watch the sun rise over the Great Smokey Mountains and catch the beginning of spring. Around her neighborhood in Maryville, Tenn., they await her annual return the way they watch for the northerly passing of the Canada geese and the first buttercups.

Her name's Ladd, first Lillian Cox, then Lillian Ladd, Mother Ladd ever since anybody can remember, and she is something of a legend in the Tennessee hill country between the Smokies and the Cumberland plateau, partly because she is nearly 101 years old, but mostly because she once represented law and order as the high sheriff of Roane County, Tenn. It is a moonshing, coal-mining county people are as hard as hickory knots.

To this day she has never considered herself a feminist, and she might think right now that you were calling her something ulgy if you told her that's what she was and is.

The 50-odd years that have since passed here obliterated the exact date when she became the functional, if not the official, Roane County sheriff, but it happened this way.

Her husband, the real sheriff, was sick, and she had taken him to see a doctor in Illinois. They had no sooner arrived when they received a wire that all the prisoners -- about 20 -- had broken out of the Roane County jail.

"I caught the frist train out to Tennessee -- trains ran than, you know -- and I caught the first one back to Kingston. Well, I thought I knew about where two of them would be because they lived up in the country. I got a man to drive me in the car, up a country road beside Walden's Ridge. We went several miles, 10 or 15 I guess, and I saw two men up on the side of the mountain, and I knew it was them.

"So I motioned and beckoned for them to come down; they knew it was me, they knew who it was, and they just kept going and I kept going in the car right along the edge of the mountain, beckoning to them and blowing the horn, and finally they came down to the car.

"I said 'Now you sit down here boys, and let me talk to you." I said, "Listen, there are lots of the deputies who would love to kill you, and they're up here scootin' around in these mountains right now, and they'll kill you if you don't come back with me to the jail."

"I just kept talking to them, and finally one said, "I'm coming back with you." I said, "Well, come on and get in the car," and they did, both of them IN THE BACK SEAT. we went on around the mountain and stopped in Harriman -- it was a pretty good-sized town -- before we got to Kingston.

"I went in the Western Union, and left the men sitting in the back seat of the car unguarded, because they promised me they would stay there and go with me to the jail, so I left them there.

"I was writing a telegram to my husband to tell him I got the two main prisoners, and the man in the telegraph office said, "Where are they?" I said, They're out three in the car, they promised me they won't leave," and he went out to see for hisself.

"The next morning, there was a half a page in The Chattanooga Times, telling all about it. While I was talking to the man in the Western Union, he was writing it all down, I didn't know he was putting it in the newspaper, but my husband read all about it nearly before I got home.

After word spread that two of the leaders of the escape were back in custody, the other prisoners drifted back from the mountains, into Kingston and into jail.

Middle-aged, a grandmother and soon to be a widow, she had overnight become a local celebrity.

John Christopher Ladd, her husband, was a prosperous logging contractor who built the first roads in their section of the Cumberlands, Ladd took her to the Kentucky Derby every year for 25 years, and to the Indianapolis Speedway, and occasionally to Cincinnati.

She will confess that some of her ancestors in New England were Democrats, but she won't admit to any Democratic kinfolks in Tennessee. Indeed, 115 years after her father came home from the Civil War, she's still bragging and giving thanks, and sometimes even looking for a little credit that, "Thank God, he was on the winning side, the Republican side."

When her husband was elected sheriff, it was in a country where moonshining was the major industry and men carried guns as casually as they wore hats.

Six months after she rounded up the leaders of the jailbreak, her husband died and the widow Ladd was named by the county court to serve out his term, which she did, carrying her .32 Special in her purse but using it -- acting as a sort of mother to her prisoners.

As she recalls it now, she and her deputies kept the Roane County jail operating at near capacity, housing moonshiners and bootleggers.

She finally stepped down as sheriff. "It was not my calling. It was a rought kind of job back then and I took it just because of my husband."

She took her .32 Special and became a fraternity housemother at the University of Tennessee, where she had small roon in the basement. There had been a problem with burglars, and not long after she moved in, the problem recurred.

"I peeped through the keyhole in my door, and I saw just a portion of him before the refrigerator there, getting something out of the refrigerator. He came out into the hall and flipped the light out, and I heard him go creeking up the stairs. He got all the watches and money that the boys had lying out, and then he came back down. I was standing there with my gun in my hand and and he began trying to get the door of my room open, and I just started shooting right through the door. Oh, how he scrambled. I didn't know but what I had killed him. We found splinters all through the room where I had shot through the door."

"We never did have another burglar as long as I stayed here, and the next day they were selling papers on the street in Knoxville that said, "Extry, Extry, Housemother Shoots Burglar."

In 1964 her grandson, Howard Henry Baker Jr., went into politics, and when he campaigned for the U.S. Senate he went around bragging about her.

He's still doing it, now that he is running for the Republican presidential nomination.

"My grandmother was a sheriff down in Tennessee," he often says. "She told me if I really wanted to run for president she would support me, but she said. "Son, if you don't run for president, run for sheriff."

Mother Ladd laughs her old women's laugh. "I didn't say no such a thing."

she said, "Howard Henry made that up."