In a speech that sometimes crackled with emotion, Maryland's first lady yesterday publicly recounted the suicides of her brother and father and urged families to seek professional help when they are having serious problems with children.
"We cannot isolate ourselves," Frances Hughes Glendening told a gathering of about 300 people at a statewide conference on youth suicide prevention. "There are times in all our lives when we get off track, when we feel out of sync with the rest of the world."
For Mrs. Glendening, that time came in Cumberland on Oct. 16, 1978, when her 53-year-old father, former state Sen. George R. Hughes Jr., was found dead in the car he left running in a closed garage. Nine years later, her 17-year-old brother, Raymond Hughes, died of an overdose of morphine.
The trauma of those two events, combined with her mother's death from cancer six months after her brother's suicide, were staggering blows. But Mrs. Glendening, her words sometimes quavering, said she sought help for herself and became committed to helping others.
"As you can tell by my voice, this was a pretty difficult period of my life," she said. "Helping others helped me through my grief."
Mrs. Glendening's keynote address to the conference of educators, social workers and health professionals in Linthicum Heights received an extended ovation. It was one of only a handful of times the wife of Gov. Parris N. Glendening has publicly discussed that period of her life.
But unlike her recent predecessors in Government House, the 44-year-old Federal Elections Commission attorney has been something of a social activist, balancing her career with speaking engagements and volunteer work. She has made numerous appearances before professional groups, most frequently on behalf of her favorite causes -- youth suicide prevention, hospice care, mental health and women's issues.
Ray Feldmann, a spokesman for Mr. Glendening, said the First Lady has made 26 speaking engagements since the governor took office and probably turned down "three times as many."
Mrs. Glendening said later that she felt an obligation to share her experience to help lessen the stigma attached to suicide. "As frightening as it may seem to think of the possibility of suicide, the real experience is devastating," she said. "I want to encourage people to look for signs and seek help."
Her father wrestled with manic depression after a failed bid for Congress. His pride prevented him from seeking professional help, she said. Even her brother, who was hospitalized for addiction, had dropped out of suicide counseling after his father's death.
"I have no prescription for how we deal with these issues," she said. "There is no formula."
Part of the answer for Mrs. Glendening was to make her own family her No. 1 priority. She said she blocks out many evenings and weekends on the governor's schedule for family time with their son, Raymond.
Raymond, 15, a junior at DeMatha High School in Prince George's County, faces the normal teen pressures as well as the exceptional burden of being a governor's son. Mrs. Glendening said she was reminded of that recently when the Glendenings went to the Motor Vehicle Administration to get Raymond's learner's permit and the governor was swamped by the crowd. The scrutiny made Raymond nervous, she said.
"I told him, 'Relax, the lady I just talked to has two grandsons at DeMatha and both failed their first learner's permit written test,' " she told the conference. "I only point that out because whether you're the governor's son or not, there are things that seem silly to us, but they are very real to our young people."
Conference organizers said they were pleased that Mrs. Glendening has a personal interest in youth suicide prevention and hoped that translated to support from the governor. The one-day event was sponsored by 15 health and social welfare organizations.
"It was wonderful," said Chrissy Polce, the conference's co-chair. "These are experiences that are difficult to share. It took a lot of courage to do that."