Clara P. Denton, whose letter of thanks Gov. Harry Hughes quoted in his inaugural address today, is a spry Kentuckian who says Maryland helped her when she decided she wasn't ready to live out her life in a nursing home.

Denton, 90, said volunteers and the state of Maryland's "Gateway" program helped her move out of an expensive geriatric care facility and into a shared house in Cambridge, on the Eastern Shore, where she is happy. Her new housemate is only 69 years old, Denton said, "But I can keep up with her."

Denton said in a telephone interview that Hughes phoned her Tuesday to say he would mention her in his speech. She said that she couldn't talk long because she didn't want to miss the radio broadcast of his talk.

Denton moved from Hopkinsville, Ky., to a cottage in Cambridge eight years ago to be near two daughters. She said she made sure when she left Kentucky that she would have her own home, since she had lived alone for 36 years.

Fifteen months ago Denton was injured in a fall. Doctors recommended nursing home care until she recovered, but after she was well, nursing home officials did not want her to go back to living alone, she said.

Denton, who declined to identify the nursing home where she lived, said she was unhappy there. "They treated me well," she said, "but I was so penned up." She said she spent much of her time helping the staff with the other patients and went for walks of seven or eight blocks every day.

Last fall she contacted volunteer ombudsmen at the nursing home who helped secure her release. "I have rights," said Denton. "Everybody does."

Denton then contacted the state Gateway program, which was set up last August to provide elderly people with information on services and programs available through public and private agencies. Gateway helped her find shared housing. She said her new digs are much more satisfactory than the nursing home. Asked if she was saving money by the move, she said, "I reckon so, and I can have what I want to eat."

The harsh weather of the last week has made her daily walks impossible, "But I was out to the beauty parlor today," she said.

In her letter to Hughes, Denton wrote, "Because of the help of the ombudsman and Gateway I am a happy woman and feel that I have a reason to live now . . . and at 90 years of age, that is important."

Hughes said in his speech that the letter, "tells us what government is all about, or should be."

The $435,000 Gateway program serves as a contact for older people in all 24 state jurisdictions (23 counties and Baltimore City), said Susan Coller, a Gateway officer. The program was Hughes' idea, she said, and the legislature enacted it last year.