HOUSTON—A quaint little shop in the Rice Village sells everything from British teas to British toys, but now a spotlight in the store literally shines on one of the most powerful women of the twentieth century.
Sitting a shelf just inside the front door are ceramic busts of the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister who died Monday morning at the age of 87. Stella Swallick, an Argentine woman living in Houston, carried one of the busts to the cash register.
“I want to get it on the day that this lady passed away to honor her,” Swallick said. “I just think it’s important.”
Think about that for a second. Thatcher went to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, yet an Argentine living in Texas felt compelled to buy a bust honoring her memory. Such is the outsized influence of the first woman to serve as Britain’s prime minister.
“She put the ‘great’ back in Great Britain,” said Helen Mann, who served as British vice-consul in Houston during the Thatcher years.
Here in Houston, some of us remember Thatcher’s visit during the 1990 Economic Summit, when she shared the stage at Rice University with a half dozen other world leaders in a global conference delivered to the city by its resident President George H.W. Bush. At a rodeo staged for the event, a live television audience watched Thatcher pump her fist as she rooted for a barrel racing horsewoman.
But she had already developed an enthusiastic local following well before moving into 10 Downing Street. Longtime British expatriates living in Houston smile when they recall a speaking appearance at the River Oaks Country Club, when so many people packed into the ballroom British consulate that officials said fire marshals threatened to shut the meeting down. Mind you, again, that was before she assumed power as prime minister.
“She enjoyed Houston, because I think she experienced Houston as very much the kind of ‘can do’ city that it was and still is,” Mann said. “And she enjoyed that. It represented to her the kind of spirit that she liked.”
Her closest ally on the international stage was President Ronald Reagan, her fellow advocate of privatization and the power of free markets. That special version of the special relationship continued with Reagan’s successor, a Houstonian named George H.W. Bush. Together, Bush and Thatcher led the remarkable international coalition that drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1990.
“Margaret was, to be sure, one of the 20th Century’s fiercest advocates of freedom and free markets,” said the former president in a written statement, “a leader of rare character who carried high the banner of her convictions, and whose principles in the end helped shape a better, freer world.”
“Mikhail Gorbachev rightly called her the ‘Iron Lady,’” said James Baker III, Bush’s secretary of state, in a written statement. “And she was that, correcting her country’s labor woes and implementing a resolute vision that helped lead to the peaceful end of the Cold War. She could charm and persuade her adversaries whenever possible, but also knew how to cower them when needed. Margaret Thatcher was an extraordinary leader who led by example, a strong prime minister who was superb in dealing with the intersection of politics and public policy.”
But for all the world leaders living in the Houston area issuing laudatory statements about Thatcher’s passing, others offered more intimate remembrances. One of them was David Wallace, the former mayor of Sugar Land, who served as her chief of staff after she left office.
“As strong-willed as she is—she truly is and will always be the Iron Lady—death is something I never thought she would’ve succumbed to,” he said.
Wallace served as CEO of the Grantham Company, which invested Thatcher family money, as well as founding director and treasurer of her charitable foundation. His office is decorated with dozens of photographs and mementoes of his career in business and politics, but a special place behind his desk is reserved for a photograph of Thatcher. It’s displayed in the same frame as a copy of “The Daily Telegraph” with a front-page picture of the former prime minister riding in the backseat of a limousine with Wallace at her side.
After witnessing Thatcher’s efforts to privatize industries controlled by the British government, Wallace enacted the same philosophy when he became Sugar Land’s mayor. He remembers pulling out a copy of the Yellow Pages and instructing his staff to privatize any function of city government that could be turned over to a local business.
“She had her convictions,” Wallace said. “She knew what she wanted to do. And I pity the people that stood in her way whenever she wanted to do something.”
Another witness to that spirit was Dan Donnelly, a renowned local hairdresser who coiffed the former prime minister during her visits to Houston.
“I thought she was very much a lady,” he said. “Even though she had this kind of a stern look, I found her very feminine.”
Donnelly cherishes a pair of crystal martini glasses Thatcher sent him after a particularly unusual session, when poor lighting conditions forced him to stand on a chair to cut her hair.
“In my opinion, she lived up to her name,” he said. “Lady Thatcher.”