Mary Regula, wife of former congressman Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) who founded a library saluting first ladies, died at 91. (Family Photo)

The Republican Party’s Lincoln Day event was coming up, and Mary Regula was filling in for her husband, an Ohio politician who had been asked to speak about President Abraham Lincoln. Instead, Mrs. Regula, a former teacher who had studied American history in college, began researching first lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

Mrs. Regula, who died April 5 at 91, expected to find books and other source material. But there was shockingly little on Mary Todd Lincoln or any other first lady.

“It wasn’t until the 1970s,” Mrs. Regula later told The Washington Post, “that we decided women had any part in this nation’s history.”

Vowing to plug what she considered a gaping hole, she began a fundraising campaign to raise money to accomplish her vision, which began to take hold amid her husband Ralph Regula’s 18 terms in Congress representing a district in northeastern Ohio.

Starting in 1994, she recruited 13 women from Ohio to help set the groundwork for a first ladies museum. They restored a three-story Victorian brick mansion in Canton, Ohio, that had been the family home of Ida Saxton McKinley, the wife of President William McKinley.

They raised $100,000 to hire historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony to amass a 40,000-entry bibliography of works related to the first ladies. She brought first lady Hillary Clinton aboard as honorary co-chair. In 1998, former first lady Rosalynn Carter cut the ribbon of the formal opening of the National First Ladies’ Library.

The museum, Mrs. Regula said, would serve to chronicle the lives of first ladies and provide a resource for scholars and students.

“We will never be about gowns and gloves,” she told the Associated Press. “We are an educational and resource facility.”

The Saxton-McKinley House had been renovated to show what the rooms would have looked like when the former first family used it in the late 1890s as a summer White House, and exhibits inside explained the role of first ladies.

The library showed people that “even though this was women and women’s history, this is not history just for women,” Anthony said in an interview. “This is history for everyone.”

A year after its opening, the library started a First Ladies Salute First Women event to recognize women in the vanguard of their fields. The location, which President Bill Clinton designated as a historic site in 2000, expanded to include an education and research center. The library also partnered with schools to provide educational programming.

“Mary was proud to be a strong woman who spent her life in an age when women’s accomplishments were undervalued at best, or not recognized at worst,” William Blair, the museum’s board chairman said in a statement after her death. “The subcontext of this was to recognize the great achievements of all women who, similarly have not been recognized for their achievements.”

Mrs. Regula acknowledged that her husband’s clout on the House’s powerful Appropriations Committee helped secure a reported $1.2 million for the museum, which also received private funds.

“I could not have had the opportunity had Ralph not been in Congress,” she told the Akron Beacon Journal.

Mary Ann Rogusky was born in Girard, Ohio, on Nov. 29, 1926, to Eastern European immigrants. Her father was a steelworker, her mother a homemaker.

A high school teacher helped her secure a scholarship to attendwhat is now the University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio. She graduated in 1949 and married a fellow student, Ralph Regula, whom she called “the first live Republican I’d ever met.” (She had grown up in a resolutely Democratic family.)

They also overcame religious differences — she was Catholic, and he was Protestant — by deciding to raise their family Episcopalian, the Daily Record reported in 2008. Ralph Regula died in July after 67 years of marriage. Survivors include three children, Richard Regula, David Regula and Martha Regula, all of Navarre, Ohio; and four grandchildren.

Mrs. Regula died at her family’s farm in Navarre. She had Alzheimer’s disease, David Regula said.

As the wife of a politician, Mrs. Regula had a small desk in her husband’s Washington office, helped oversee constituent tours and was a former president of the Congressional Club, a nonprofit group of current and former spouses of members of Congress, Supreme Court justices and Cabinet officers. During her husband’s many campaigns for reelection, Mrs. Regula joined him in the hustings and gave out cookbooks.

In a 1989 interview on PBS’s “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” journalist Roger Mudd asked Mrs. Regula, “Do you think there are certain jobs that congressional wives should not take?”

“Absolutely not,” she replied.