In Mary Sue Terry's little house in Stuart, Va. (pop. 1,200), is a collection of pigs -- her parents are part-time hog farmers -- and one of them is a paper pig covered with collegiate doggerel. It's a tribute from schoolmates at Westhampton College at the University of Richmond, evoking her small-town roots, college dorm parties, campus elections and the days when coeds wore A-line skirts and McMullen blouses and had to be over a white line in the dorm by a certain hour or face disciplinary action.
What a difference you've made, Mary Sue --
There is little here you did not do,
With your laugh, you could never be in disguise
Here in the dorm or out with one of your Princeton guys . . .
Summer school at William and Mary was really a blast --
You're lucky your future doesn't reflect on the past!
Basketball, hockey, golf -- you're really a pro
Miss Higgenbotham seems to have been your only foe! . . .
And in a couplet showing unusual prescience:
A summer of working and playing up on the hill,
Ten years from now you'll be introducing that bill.
She was indeed introducing bills within a decade, and earlier this month was sworn in as Virginia's attorney general, the Old Dominion's first woman elected to any statewide office. Along with Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, Virginia's first black statewide officeholder, Terry, 38, symbolizes a new era in Virginia politics.
For however unprecedented her election (she led the ticket, polling about 71,000 more votes than Gov. Gerald Baliles), there is little revolutionary about Mary Sue Terry herself -- as an individual or as a politician. On a ticket of Democratic moderates she was the most conservative member -- the only one, for example, supported by former U.S. senator Harry F. Byrd Jr., whose endorsement signals acceptability to the remnants of the Virginia Old Guard. She neither sought nor received the endorsement of feminist groups, but the business community supported her with enthusiasm. Her support of the Equal Rights Amendment came only after she opposed it for four years in the legislature, and her pro-choice position on abortion was fogged by her support of a related bill to limit minors' access to the operation.
Her patron in the legislature was the legendary A.L. Philpott, the crusty, white-haired Speaker of the House, whose "good ol' boy" credentials are nearly impeccable. Yet even he is more liberal than Terry on issues that interest the American Civil Liberties Union.
Her ideology cloaks the highly charged energy of a female Horatio Alger, risen not from poverty but from rural anonymity by seizing every opportunity and working harder than everyone else. She followed the rules and fulfilled the obligations, passed the tests, got the scholarships, checked off the lists, wrote the thank-you notes, made the phone calls and took all the courses.
"I've always been goal-oriented," she says, looking you right in the eye.
With her southern graciousness and silky dresses with bows at the neck, she could also serve as a model for the typical Richmond matron, tall, athletically trim, her graying hair swept back from her face. She is the picture of a conventional, middle-class Virginia woman in every way but two: She is not married, and she is the state's attorney general.
On personal subjects Terry can be more candid and relaxed than other candidates, dissolving at times into a distinctive laugh, a sharp whinny echoed in somewhat softer tones by her two sisters. But she is also expert at "Robb-speak," a brand of cautious language perfected by former governor Charles S. Robb.
For example: "I always felt that if one gender expects the other gender to approach issues fairly and rise above personal perspective, then it's incumbent upon the other gender to do the same thing."
She lives now in a temporary apartment in Richmond within walking distance of the Capitol, and speaks of "the timetable" to "assess" her "life style" as attorney general to decide whether to undertake the responsibility of a house.
Although she says she is not a workaholic, there has been little time for anything but work since she set her sights on the attorney generalship three years ago. Her two-bedroom house has not been lived in very much; the front porch columns need painting and the chrome-and-glass dining room table has no chairs around it. She loves the little house and freely invited a reporter to stop in and look around even though she wasn't there, apologizing later that it didn't "look the way I'd like."
She put old-fashioned slate countertops in the kitchen, and hung a framed feed sack on a wall paneled with wood from the old family mill. But perhaps the most pertinent reminder of the owner is 27 pairs of well-worn shoes in the closet, most of them campaign pumps.
A golfer and one-time basketball player, she now gets her exercise climbing three flights of stairs in her apartment building. There have been men in her life, but no one special right now. Don Beyer, a Northern Virginia car dealer and new powerhouse Democratic fundraiser, was her date for the inaugural ball. Most free time is spent with her parents, her sisters and their families. She takes her role as aunt to four nephews and a niece very seriously, and was at the hospital for each birth but the last, when she was flying around the state campaigning.
"I've watched her grieve over the implications of her choices as her child-bearing years near their end," said an old friend from college days. "But Mary Sue has always taken responsibility for her decisions."
"She's been so busy with her career she hasn't had time to get married," said E. Morgan Massey, president of the A.T. Massey Coal Co. in Richmond, a Republican and enthusiastic Terry supporter. "I'm not sure there's many men who could keep up with her. Most are male chauvinist pigs, like me."
She grew up in Critz (rhymes with "kites"), Va., a tiny crossroads a few miles from here. The closest city is Martinsville, a rough-hewn town of 18,000 known for manufacturing textiles and wood products. Adjacent Patrick County rises and dips over the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, bare and bleak in the winter but beautiful in every other season.
About 17,500 people live in Patrick County, fewer than in 1900 -- a generally prosperous populace of small farmers raising beef and hogs, apples and peaches. One town, Meadows of Dan, is known for its cabbage. The people talk with a broad southern accent, dropping g's like leaves in autumn, even if, like Terry, they have degrees enough to paper an outhouse.
The family home burned before she was born and Terry lived the first six years of her life in an apartment over the school auditorium in Critz, but in 1955 her parents built a contemporary rambler to replace it, on a hill overlooking Cooper's Mill, the family feed grain and farm supplies business.
Both Nannie Ruth and Nathan Terry were schoolteachers and taught all three of their daughters in the small Critz school. Mary Sue, the eldest, graduated second in her class of 36. Her mother had been her history and English teacher.
"She was smart, we all knew that," said her father, who retired as principal of the school about eight years ago. "She was aggressive, we knew that. She was competitive, we knew that. Whether or not she'd head into politics, we didn't know."
Both Terrys were fierce educators, and life revolved around this commitment with an urgency evident only to an outsider. Afternoons and evenings were spent on homework and basketball; Mary Sue's sister Sally Ann Rodgers, now assistant principal at the county high school, remembers that very little television was allowed.
"Daddy hated cartoons, and he wouldn't let us watch them," she said. "He wouldn't let us sleep late on the weekends either. 'You'll waste your life away,' he'd say."
On weekends the girls rode horses and helped out at the store; at 6, Mary Sue sold rat bait and dog food on commission. Later she wrote the payroll checks. Their mother was also the school librarian, and their father the speech coach, training one young man to victory in the Future Farmers of America public speaking contest. (Mary Sue Terry still remembers the first line of the winning speech: "Future Farmers, why are we here?")
But the familial intimacy of small-town living can also have limitations -- a narrowness of outlook, a lack of accessible educational choices and cultural exposure, a limiting of expectations akin to that of the poorest inner-city ghetto. The Terrys set about compensating for all that.
In the summer they sent their daughters to stay with cousins in Arlington, to swim in a pool instead of a pond and to visit museums. The girls studied ballet with one woman in Stuart and piano with another, but greeted both activities with indifference.
"I despised ballet," laughed Sally Ann Rodgers. "And the piano teacher made you cut your fingernails . . . I stuck with it a little longer" than Mary Sue. "When I was in college I went to an Artur Rubinstein concert, but all I remember is thinking, 'Why don't these people quit applauding? Every time they stand up he plays again!' "
More significantly, said her father, "when Mary Sue was in seventh grade the Russians put up this Sputnik, and all of a sudden we thought we were behind in everything. So they started giving these National Science Foundation Fellowships."
"As the librarian, I got all this stuff and I'd read those class descriptions," said her mother. "Nobody else was interested in spending their summers going to school, but Mary Sue was. So from seventh grade on, she got these scholarships."
"And this was when she only weighed 80 pounds and still carried a teddy bear to sleep with her," her father added.
She studied speech and drama in West Virginia, physics in Kentucky, math and engineering in Texas. Westhampton required three years of a language as a minimum requirement for entrance, and there was barely one offered in Critz. So Mary Sue and her second sister, Ruth (now a CPA in Stuart), drove to Martinsville after school to audit a college course in Spanish.
"By the time I entered Westhampton I'd already lived on five campuses," she said.
Nonetheless, she found it difficult to compete at first. "She called us after two weeks and said we hadn't done right by her lettin' her grow up in the sticks," said her father. "Then two weeks later she called to say she'd been elected president of the freshman class."
At college her nickname was "Sea Ox," usually shortened to "Ox," because one evening she was reading a history book and asked some of her dorm mates, "Who are these Sea-ox Indians?" Her friends thought that anyone who had never heard of the Sioux deserved to be reminded of it.
"She pretty much ran the school," said one of her best friends, Alice Justice Retzer, now a teacher, mother and clergyman's wife in Waynesboro.Retzer was class secretary, and she and Terry got to know each other partly by going to church together, an activity most college freshmen avoid. In those days, the late '60s, despite the tumult on campuses around the country, Westhampton was still a bastion of protected education for young women. They could wear slacks only during exams and on weekends. Hours were strictly supervised. Terry recalls being charged with "over-dating" -- being in the presence of a man for more than five minutes after 7:30 p.m. on a Monday, Tuesday or Thursday. Life was full of song fests, daisy chains and May queens, and the most rebellious thing Terry can recall doing was playing bridge instead of studying.
"I got more conventional as time went on," she said.
Terry thrived at Westhampton, and even today is on the board of the University of Richmond. She held numerous offices, reorganized the system of student representation and played sports. In her junior year she took an aptitude exam to test her inclination to go to law school.
"At that time (1968) the university did nothing to encourage women to go to law school. I didn't have any models -- either women or lawyers -- in my family. I wanted to make sure I wasn't just trying to impress somebody."
In fact, recalls sister Sally Ann, their father was vehemently opposed to law school. "He was furious. He said, 'What is a woman going to do with a law degree?' All of us were expected to be educators, and Mary Sue was the only one who bucked that. I really admired her. She just stood up to Daddy and said, 'I'm going.' "
Before entering the University of Virginia Law School, however, she spent 11 months earning a master's degree in political science at the university's school of government, where she cemented her basically traditional views and focused her plans for the future.
"I enjoyed reading monographs," she said. "I didn't enjoy the number-crunching, the behavioral stuff, the why-people-do-what-they-do. I was much more interested in why elected officials did what they did."
She began collecting quotes from people like Reinhold Niebuhr and can still recite at high speed Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Civilized is the man who's learned to query his own first principles. And to allow that which he holds dear to be done away with short of revolution by the orderly processes of law."
For her the antiwar protests of the era exist as dim memories of distant candlelight marches glimpsed as she left the library. "I observed it with some interest," she said. "I thought of it in the context of Eric Hoffer's 'The True Believer.' That is, I had an appreciation for the issue but I was a little skeptical [of mass movements].
"I'm a strong believer that differences and conflicts can be addressed, if not resolved, with civility, and that the health of our process calls for a commitment to that. I think I was at times put off by the stridency, an air of self-righteousness . . . I am uncomfortable when I find myself confronted with a situation where conviction turns into a real judgmental situation."
Although she was one of only 15 women in the law school, feminism was an alien notion that never took root in her active mind. "Things that hit the top of the emotional Richter scale for my [women] classmates just didn't even register on mine," she said.
Law school gave her a way to support herself (and pay back the loans she took out to pay her own way through school), and gave her a way to go back to Patrick County and be her own boss.
"Everybody assumed she'd go to some big firm" in Richmond, said Retzer. "She was so bright and so capable. When she said she was going back to Patrick all her friends said, 'Why on earth does she want to go back to the sticks?' But they didn't understand . . . that's really who she is. She wasn't interested in just making money."
What she did was join Martin F. (Fill) Clark, who had been Commonwealth's attorney of Patrick County for nearly 30 years. She served as assistant prosecutor for four years, and after that practiced the basics of country law: divorces, personal injury suits, real estate, wills. When one of three area delegates to the state House resigned, she positioned herself to run for Clark's job, assuming that in the predictable order of local politics he would run for delegate.
But Clark, a controversial figure subsequently voted out of office, opted out. The legislature, he says, "didn't appeal to me politically and I didn't like that [four-hour] drive to Richmond. She was the only bright young attorney around of her political persuasion. So I told her if she wanted it I'd help her . . . I had a helluva time selling it, too [to Philpott and the other political powers]. They were hesitant about running with a woman and they were looking after their own hides." (At that time it was a three-member district.)
"My first reaction was, 'How about in two to four years?' " said Terry. "For the first time in my life I had time and money at the same time. I was comfortable, I had bought and remodeled a house, I was entertaining a lot, going out a lot . . . But I knew I would not be able to live with myself if I turned down the opportunity because I was lazy or afraid."
During that first campaign, in 1977, Philpott did most of the speaking, he said. They had emery boards printed with the three candidates names on them, and Terry was in charge of the campaign brochures. She led the ticket.
She arrived in Richmond looking more like a college senior than an attorney, but kept a low profile, and went quietly about the job of proving herself to the largely male assembly, a group not known for its progressive attitudes toward women.
"They tested me, but in the same way they'd test a new male colleague. I found them friendly and in many cases very helpful," she said.
"I always thought of her as competent and hard-working, but philosophically one of the good ol' boys, the white male power structure," said Judy Goldberg, who lobbied for the ACLU in Richmond until last fall.
"She pretty much avoided women's issues," said former state senator Evelyn Hailey (D-Norfolk), who is not a fan of Terry. Last November "we feminists just held our noses and voted."
But others have a different perspective. "Feminists are not the mainstream in Virginia," said Marianne Fowler, head of the Virginia branch of the National Woman's Political Caucus. "She is not a raging feminist, but by golly she is much better than anything we've had before."
When it comes to "women's issues," Terry prefers to call them "family issues," and supports them on a case-by-case basis. She cites her patronage of a divorce bill, a precursor of the equitable distribution act, and another measure that allowed prosecutors to go after child support defaulters in other states, as examples of worthy issues.
Her change of heart on the ERA, which came after she commissioned a poll of her constituents, angered feminists like Hailey who saw it as too little, too late, as well as ERA opponents like Philpott and Clark. Both saw it as a political move made only after Terry had set her sights on higher office, a skepticism she simply shrugs off.
Terry was known more for proposing legislation on the subject of drunk driving, including one measure on which Philpott and the ACLU were united in vehement opposition. The bill, which passed, says that anyone arrested for drunk driving who has .15 percent of alcohol in his or her blood is automatically guilty.
How did a relatively unknown woman from a small rural county manage to get herself elected attorney general? She started early and worked hard. A full year before the election, four months before she even announced her candidacy, she unveiled a campaign treasury of $138,000, which helped establish her credibility.
For several years Terry had spent her evenings and weekends speaking to every Rotary, Ruritan and Lion's club that would have her. Driving around the state, she solicited the wealthy for funds and the less wealthy for support. By the convention she had more or less chased off any opposition.
Del. Alson Smith (D-Winchester) known for his expertise at fund raising and his willingness to share tips with newer candidates, has said of Terry, "she's the only one who did exactly what I said."
The campaign went smoothly, with only a few problems, all of them overcome. Her lackluster opponent, Republican W.R. (Buster) O'Brien, made the mistake early in his campaign of claiming to have been a Washington Redskin when he had never played for the team. Another Republican, attempting to discredit Terry for being single, praised O'Brien for having more knowledge of criminal law "in his little finger than his opponent has in all five of her ringless fingers." The rumor mill, fueled largely by Republicans, was working overtime, grinding out gossip, but Terry was able to diffuse it. Her commercials showed her safely ensconced in the bosom of her extended family. Her father made one of her nominating speeches at the convention. Philpott made the other.
In the weeks before the election she got her mother and father to telephone every county party chairman and cochairman in the state, three weeks of evenings spent on the telephone. It was the kind of methodical, thorough work that seems typical of the entire family.
None of her friends or family is really surprised to find Mary Sue Terry where she is, nor do they seem shocked to hear her name mentioned as a possible senator or governor. No one can recall Terry not getting anything she really wanted.
"We always knew she'd be something, it was just a question of what," said Retzer. "A long time ago I was sort of grieving at the different paths our lives would take," said Retzer. "I said, 'In a few years you'll come visit me in my kitchen and I'll be barefoot and have five kids around my feet, and I'll come visit you in the governor's mansion.' But she's handled the changes very graciously, far more so than I could have. She really cares for her friends, and I'm grateful for that."
During the campaign, one newspaper reported a conversation between her and an elderly supporter. He said he'd be glad to vote for her, but he just couldn't imagine calling her "general." "I told him . . . regardless of what my job or title is, I always want to be 'Mary Sue.' "