Walter and Marion Hutcheson of Grafton, Va., were among the few people in the United States who spent Thanksgiving Day fretting over the results of the Irish general election.
The reason for their anxiety was that their daughter, 31-year-old Kristi, is married to Irishman Dick Spring, leader of the Irish Labor Party.
With the results of that election now known, it seems that the Hutchesons were quite right to be interested in its outcome, for today their son-in-law holds the balance of power in Ireland. Since neither of the two major political parties got an overall majority of the vote, it is certain that Spring's Laborites will join a coalition government -- thus ensuring that Dick Spring will become the deputy prime minister of Ireland when the parliament convenes here on Dec. 14.
From her home in Tralee, Ireland, Kristi Spring spoke this week about the extraordinary sequence of events that took her from a teaching position in the Richmond public school system to life as the wife of an Irish political leader who is now being courted by Europe's socialists, including France's Francois Mitterrand, Spain's Felipe Gonzalez and Britain's Michael Foot.
"Things have happened so fast for us that I haven't had time to think," Kristi said. "If I had more time I suppose I might be a little awed."
Kristi admits she had no real political philosophy while she was growing up in Hampton, Va. And she certainly never intended to leave the U.S. permanently. She attended Hampton public schools, went on to Virginia Commonwealth University, majored in education and, upon graduation, took a job teaching fourth grade in a Richmond school. Four years into her teaching career, Kristi chose the more exciting life of an airline flight attendant.
While she was based in New York in early 1976, she frequented a Manhattan restaurant called the Mad Hatter, where she was introduced to a young Irishman doing a stint as a bartender. His name was Dick Spring, a barrister and rugby star from the romantic west of Ireland.
"It wasn't love at first sight or anything. We were friends for a good while before we got serious, but then things happened very quickly," Kristi Spring said in her slightly faded Virginia drawl. "We were married in Hampton after we knew each other for about a year, in June of 1977."
After their marriage, the Springs moved to Dick's home town of Tralee where he set up a law office. Almost immediately, Spring joined the political party of his father, Dan Spring, a former Labor Party member of parliament.
In June 1981, Dick ran for parliament himself and was elected easily. He was appointed a minister in that government and rose quickly within the competitive, if somewhat unstable, world of Irish politics.
Last February that short-lived government was dissolved and a new election was held. Unfortunately, just before the election, Dick was injured in a serious car crash and was unable to carry out his campaign. Kristi took over the election drive, knocking on doors, shaking hands and, according to her husband, "won that seat for me."
Then last month, after major upheavals in the Labor Party, Spring, at age 32, was elected party leader -- reportedly the youngest in the history of the nation. Days later the Irish government fell again and Spring found himself leading the Labor Party into an election.
The Labor Party, under Spring's leadership, picked up two extra seats. The coalition government is predicting a full four years of stable administration, and political leaders of all persuasions are hailing Spring as a charismatic, thoughtful new leader on the Irish scene.
Both Kristi and Dick -- and even their 1-year-old son, Aaron -- have been the subject of intense media coverage during the past month. Pictures of the couple have graced the front pages of every Dublin daily and current affairs magazine. Kristi admitted last week that the price of Dick's success has been a loss of family privacy. The publicity, however, has assured Kristi -- if there was ever any doubt -- that the Irish people have accepted her as their own.
"She's gone very native, drinks tea and utters the odd Irish Gaelic phrase," said Dublin journalist Sean McConnell, who traveled the campaign trail with Spring. "Kristi is instantly likable."
Reflecting on her family's Thanksgiving Day vigil, Marion Hutcheson said: "It was quite a day, that's all I can say. All of Kristi's friends and a lot of people close to us were calling, trying to find out how the election was going. At this point, I think I could tell you more about Irish politics than [most] Americans."