It was Pat Schroeder’s barbed wit, zingy one-liners and advocacy for women’s rights that so many remember the first woman elected to Congress from Colorado by.
But it was also her trailblazing recipes, including Froot Loops smothered in mounds of Reddi-wip, and her spontaneity that made her a joy to work for and inspired others to join her in service, her former staff and family shared Friday afternoon during a memorial for the former congresswoman.
“She worked hard and the staff worked hard. For all who served in her district, in Washington, D.C., or her campaign staff, having the opportunity to work for Pat was like joyfully running away from home with one of your best friends to join the circus,” former staffer and friend Sally Brown said.
More than 200 people packed a room inside History Colorado in downtown Denver, many wearing blue campaign buttons with the slogan, “She won, We won.” After she surprisingly beat her Republican challenger in 1972 and became the first woman Colorado to win a seat in Congress, she went on to serve 12 terms.
Schroeder died March 13 in a Florida hospital after suffering a stroke. She was 82.
Friday’s crowd included dozens of the congresswoman’s former staff, including a 102-year-old woman who volunteered for Schroeder’s campaign in 1972 and traveled from California to attend the memorial. Notes were shared from elected officials, including U.S. Reps. Joe Neguse and Diana DeGette, praising the Colorado trailblazer.
Former Gov. Bill Ritter also sat in the crowd and a person dressed in a bunny suit, which Schroeder once donned during a visit to China with fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee, also made a guest appearance.
It was Schroeder’s work as a Colorado Democrat that paved the way for many women across the country and made a brighter future for younger Americans, Gov. Jared Polis said Friday.
During her 24-year congressional tenure, Schroeder was a megaphone for the women’s movement and fought for the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. She was the first woman to serve on the House Armed Services Committee, fought for women to serve on combat missions and helped create the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge.
“A Colorado that truly values the contributions of life of everybody, no matter your gender, your sexual orientation, your race, your geography — that was something that Pat deeply believed in throughout her life and something that is an ongoing challenge for us to realize every day for our nation and of course for the great state of Colorado that she served so beautifully in our nation’s capital,” said the governor, who worked as a page for Schroeder for a summer.
She was imaginative and witty, coining the phrase, “Teflon president,” a term still used today to refer to any politician who can avoid blame, Polis said.
Her legacy also includes representing a diverse district, which she knew like the back of her hand, often making stops at firehouses across the city, former staffer Brown said. Schroeder knew the best spaghetti was prepared at Denver Fire Station No. 7 on West 38th Avenue and the most delicious pancakes were served in Fire Station No. 3 in Five Points.
“From firefighters to first graders, in every nook and cranny of her district and reaching way beyond into the whole wide world, folks from all walks of life just called her Pat as if she were their best friend or member of their family,” Brown said.
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Schroeder’s staff also remembered her love for Snickers bars, Taco Bell burritos — plain, not smothered — and hot water, instead of coffee.
“That, for Pat, was the perfect dream meal,” Brown said.
Schroeder inspired women of all ages, including older women who struggled to be taken seriously, empowered her staff “to an extraordinary degree” and never forgot a birthday, Betty Wheeler, a former staffer from Washington said.
On a sticky note, Schroeder once wrote to Wheeler: “Betty, you have license to put words in my mouth. Have fun!” It was signed with Schroeder’s famous signature, a smiley face inside the ‘P.’
“Pat was a stellar role model to her staff — creative, unorthodox, energetic, brainy, generous with her time and her attention,” Wheeler said.
Joining former staff, Schroeder’s family, including her husband of 60 years, Jim, their two children and four grandchildren shared stories of how she seamlessly balanced her 24-year Washington tenure while raising two young children.
While going through his wife’s purse, Jim Schroeder found a business card with the number for “Joe the Balloon Man” she used to call often to order and surprise her children with balloons for special occasions, sending them to their colleges or their workplaces. On the back of the card was the personal phone number for the former prime minister of Israel, written in his own handwriting, that he gave to the congresswoman to discuss solutions to problems in the Middle East, Jim Schroeder said.
Pat Schroeder was not easily intimidated and was remembered as a fierce advocate for women. When she was asked how she would balance life as a congresswoman and a mother of two, she famously replied, “I have a brain and a uterus and I use both,” one of her granddaughters recounted Friday, calling it her favorite quote from her grandma.
Stories shared from Friday’s memorial, along with a video of Schroeder talking about her career, will be added to the former congresswoman’s collection at History Colorado.
Schroeder retired in 1997 and was at the time, the longest serving woman in Congress. Following her political career, she moved to Florida, where she went door-to-door registering voters, according to the memorial’s program. She told family she wanted her cremated remains to be formed into a brick to hold doors open for other women.
“Pat set the bar high and the world is a much better place because she was here,” former staffer Wheeler said. “To all of Team Schroeder, to all kindred spirits, let’s honor Pat’s legacy in the best way possible: Let’s keep winning.”