Whenever Rita Crocker Bass Clements took on a task, she surpassed the rule of the day. Whether it was cutting cattle on a ranch, raising four children, chairing North Texas’ most successful fundraising efforts, rising through the political ranks to national recognition or serving as First Lady of Texas, her DNA had the leadership factor.
Born on October 30, 1931, during the Great Depression in Newton, Kansas, she was 11 when her family moved to Texas and she attended The Hockaday School, when school founder Miss Ela Hockaday still ruled the roost at the school located at Greenville and Belmont.
After graduation she attended Wellesley College and met and married recent Yale graduate Dick Bass. During their 22-year marriage, Rita became the mother of four (Bonnie Bass Smith, Barbara Bass Moroney, Jim Bass and Dan Bass), graduated with honors from the University of Texas and moved to Dallas, where she got involved in community activities. It was during this time that the petite brunette’s skills as a leader blossomed, serving as president of the Junior League of Dallas, founding director of the O’Donnell Foundation and, in 1968, chairing the Crystal Charity Ball that took place at the Statler Hilton, where legendary designer Jed Mace decorated the room with “ceiling high, silk trees and snowflake garlands” and the Lester Lanin Band performed for 830 guests.
She also became more than interested in politics. Having volunteered in Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 campaign for president, her involvement grew to such a point that she became Dallas County Precinct Chairman for the Republican Party, state co-chair for the Barry Goldwater campaign in 1964 and eventually a Republican National Committee member in 1973.
In the meantime, oilman Bill Clements was entering the world of politics. Under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, he served as Deputy Secretary of Defense. This interest in the world of politics brought Rita and Bill together, resulting in their 1975 marriage.
Four years later, when Bill was first elected governor of Texas (he served two non-contiguous terms, from 1979-1983 and 1987-1991), Rita was more than up for the job as First Lady of Texas. In addition to her political acumen, the Crystal Charity Ball Hall of Famer brought her good taste and concern for the state’s well-being to the role by becoming a driving force in the beautification of Texas and restoring the Governor’s Mansion with the help of Jed Mace. As she put it, “Even though it’s open five days a week, it’s nonetheless a home for us and for all Texans.”
For 36 years, Rita and Bill were a team, both personally and politically. But it wasn’t always easy being in the political ring and spotlight. Rita stood by her man through some very daunting times. When he ran for re-election in 1982, he lost to Mark White. But Bill rebounded and made a successful run in 1987, replacing White. It was also in that year that Bill’s role in the SMU football player pay-off that led to the university’s “Death Penalty” came to light. She also saw Bill through the tragic murder of his son, Gill Clements.
The good times trumped the challenging ones, though. Sure, there were awards, board positions and grandchildren, but Rita and Bill always stayed firm in their giving back to the North Texas community that they called home. In 2009 they gave a whopping $100M to UT Southwestern Medical Center, where the 12-story William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital stands today.
Following Bill’s death in 2011 at the age of 94, Rita’s activities slowed down due to age and being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. But when she did make an appearance, she was treated like a rock star.
When the Junior League of Dallas celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2011 at a Brook Hollow luncheon, a group photo was taken of the past JLD presidents. Unfortunately, Rita arrived just seconds after the photo had been taken. There was no hesitation. The consensus was to regroup and put her front row center in the place of honor with Lyda Hill by her side. Later Lyda recalled how Rita had been “her mentor and encouraged her to take a Dale Carnegie course, resulting in Lyda’s reporting, ‘Now, if there are two or more people, I’m ready to speak.’”
Rita’s death Saturday drew to an end a life that felt right at home in a saddle, knocking on the door for votes, presiding over the Governor’s Mansion private and public activities, raising a family, journeying through the mine field of politics, or inspiring a future philanthropist with wisdom and a touch of humor.
A memorial service will be held Thursday, January 11, at St. Michael And All Angels Church at 11 a.m.