The woman who would be first lady Margot Perot supports her husband but prefers to stay in the background

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington -- If she hadn't fallen for the short, spunky Texan who made her laugh, hadn't agreed to wear his Navy ring and wait for him as he sailed around the world, she would have stayed in Baltimore after college and pursued a career in social work as she'd planned.

But a year after her 1955 graduation from Goucher College, Margot Birmingham married the Naval Academy class president she'd met on a blind date in Annapolis. And the only social work the wife of H. Ross Perot would ever come to know would be in the glossy, moneyed, champagne world of Dallas society and philanthropy.

As private as her husband is high-profile, as low-voltage as he is turbocharged, Margot Perot, 58, has never been a visible part of the public adventures and exploits that have turned the billion dollar Perot name into near legend.

Always there, friends say of the warm, bright and personable mother of five, always supportive, always cheerful and dutiful -- but always in the background.

Even now, with the cowboy computer titan on the threshold of an independent bid for the U.S. presidency, Mrs. Perot is happy to let her husband absorb the glare of the spotlight, only agreeing to speak to a reporter to answer factual questions about her life, and uncomfortable, at least for now, with much discussion of issues.

"I'd rather Ross speak out on the issues," she says in a telephone interview from her home in north Dallas. "People are not voting for me, they're voting for him."

But even Mrs. Perot recognizes that this election year especially, the wives of presidential candidates have garnered nearly as much attention as the candidates themselves, their lives and roles arousing nearly as much interest.

A Greensburg, Pa., native who gave up a brief teaching career as soon as the first of her five children was born in the late '50s, Margot Perot's has been a life devoted to family and community work and making a gracious home on prestigious, estate-dotted Strait Lane.

It has been a life of debutante bows and charity balls, of private schools and private clubs, of Junior League meetings and ladies auxiliary teas, of board chairmanships and generous donations, of tennis every Wednesday and church every Sunday and aerobics three times a week.

"I don't think Margot had great plans for a career when she was growing up," says her sister Barbara McLeod. "As for going up the corporate ladder, it wasn't for our era. It was nothing we really aspired to."

Indeed, Mrs. Perot, who began her career as a third-grade teacher at McDonogh School, is proud to have opted for full-time motherhood, just as her own mother, a 1922 Goucher graduate, did. "Our children can say their parents were there when they were growing up," says Mrs. Perot, now a grandmother of four.

But the children also say their mother's devotion to family has not been "in a Pollyanna sort of way," as eldest daughter Nancy, 31, puts it. "She has a lively, curious mind," says the Perot daughter who worked in the personnel office of the Reagan White House. "She's not a southern woman who's been a southern homemaker type. Anything but that. Even though she's always put family above everything else."

In fact, the entire family is so close-knit, "they're like their own state," says close friend Nancy Brinker, who heads the Susan G. Komen Foundation for breast cancer research. "Whatever Ross decides to do, Margot supports him 150 percent. Always has."

This time appears no different. Although unsure of exactly what sort of role she'd carve out for herself as a campaign spouse, or how active she might be on the Ross Perot campaign trail -- "I can't imagine that I'll be that involved," she says of Hillary Clinton's activities -- she knows this much: "Mainly I'll be there to support him, to make sure his home life is serene."

She admits she has mixed feelings about the heat of a presidential campaign.

Says Ann Dittmar, a close friend of 30 years, "She feels, as one of the children said, 'It's Dad's destiny.' I don't think she thinks it's going to be a lot of fun, but she thinks that right now it's what needs to be done."

The last of five daughters born to Pittsburgh bank president Donald Cameron Williams Birmingham and homemaker Gertrude Price Birmingham who had studied piano at the Peabody Conservatory as well as chemistry at Goucher, Mrs. Perot says, with little elaboration, that she's interested in "all women's issues."

The Perot family, in fact, which underwrote a women's and children's facility at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas, elected to name it the Margot Perot Building as a 25th wedding anniversary gift to the wife and mother. The hospital, a colorful, cheery structure devoted to "progressive concepts in women's health care," has been the site of protests by anti-abortion forces, although Mrs. Perot adds that "few [abortions] are ever performed there in a year."

A member of the advisory board of Planned Parenthood in Dallas, Mrs. Perot is an advocate of abortion rights. "I believe in as little government intervention as possible," she says, offering a rare glimpse of her own opinions and ideas. "I believe it's a moral issue."

Some, in fact, credit her pro-choice stand with her husband's like-minded position. A devout Presbyterian, she says she doesn't know how much her views on this issue have influenced her husband's, but believes, "he probably would have arrived at the same conclusion."

Still, she says she's sensitive to the divisiveness of the abortion issue and adds, "Ross has always stressed personal responsibility." And for her part, "I would never have considered having one."

The husband and wife agree on nearly everything, she says, although Mrs. Perot has been a longtime Republican and has done volunteer work for Republicans in her state -- unlike her husband who's a registered Independent.

Even at Goucher, which over the years has been the recipient of more than $200,000 in Perot Foundation contributions, young Margot Birmingham took a political science course which required field work in local politics. She remembers working for Republican candidates in Towson, making phone calls, going door-to-door, standing on a street corner holding a sign.

"Never dreaming," as she says now, "that one day I'd be a part of it."

In one way, a move to Pennsylvania Avenue would be less of a stretch for the Perots than for most. Their estate -- a stop on a Gray Line bus tour of Dallas even though the brick home is shielded by landscaping and secured gates -- boasts a gym, weight room and pool, tennis and racquetball courts, a rifle range, a bowling alley and security guards who escort every TV repairman or mere acquaintance to the mansion.

"It's like they already have Secret Service [protection]," says Nancy Smith, publisher of a Dallas society newspaper and newsletter.

There is the home in Vail, the one in Bermuda, and the two country clubs -- the Brookhollow Golf Club and the Dallas Country Club -- from which the probable presidential candidate has reportedly just resigned since the clubs have been described as discriminatory in membership policies.

Although far above the competitive, social-climbing games of the city -- "They're in a social nimbus all their own," says Dallas Morning News society columnist Alan Peppard -- the Perots are hardly strangers to the sequined, tuxedoed swirl of Texas. They attend the larger charity balls and are known to be such energetic dancers that Mrs. Perot has her gowns -- many of them in yellow to highlight her blond hair -- especially designed with the jitterbug in mind.

But even on the social front, Mrs. Perot would rather stay in the shadows, shunning photographers and society columnists and preferring to make headlines for her civic work which has ranged from Girl Scout troop leader to chairman of the board of the Dallas County advisory board of the Salvation Army. She has been on the board of Presbyterian Hospital, has headed the $10,000-plus gifts division of the local United Way chapter, and has been chairman of the board of the Hockaday School, a private girls school on 100 acres in north Dallas where all of the Perot daughters went.

In February, she received the Alexis de Tocqueville Society Award from the Dallas United Way for "her efficient style and ability to motivate others . . ."

And she has just agreed to chair next year's Sweetheart Ball, a small, exclusive affair that benefits cardiac research -- if she's not otherwise engaged in Washington, her friends are quick to add.

Margot Perot

Born: Nov. 15, 1933; Greensburg, Pa. Youngest of five daughters to Donald Cameron Williams Birmingham and Gertrude Price Birmingham.

Education: Greensburg High School, Greensburg, Pa., president Dolphin Swim Club, earned $75 award for "college expenses," graduated 1951; Goucher College, Towson, sociology and anthropology major, president of College Interfaith Association, graduated 1955.

Married: H. Ross Perot, 1956. Children: Ross Jr., Nancy, Suzanne, Carolyn and Catherine, ranging in age from 33 to 21. Four grandchildren.

Current home: Dallas.

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