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Former colleagues and friends are remembering Gladys Keating, who represented the Franconia area in the House of Delegates for 22 years.

Keating died of congestive heart failure Tuesday at a hospital in Wilmington, N.C., several weeks after celebrating her 91st birthday with her family.

After years living the nomadic life of a military officer’s wife, Keating became very active in the community when the family settled in Franconia in 1961. She served as president of her civic association and the PTA, and was a member of the Fairfax County Public Library Board of Trustees.

She also helped start a girls youth softball program so girls would have an equal opportunity to play sports, said Del. Mark Sickles (D-Dist. 43), the current delegate for the district Keating represented.

“She was just a very kind person and a lot of people knew her in the community,” Sickles said.

Keating ran for the House of Delegates three times before she was successful, winning her first election in 1977. When she was elected, only 10 women had ever served in the legislature, according to Del. Vivian Watts (D-Dist. 39).

“She was a real pioneer in her service in the General Assembly,” Watts said. “She was incredibly pleasant, but absolutely tough and tenacious.”

She became the most senior woman in the General Assembly and was the first woman to be appointed to and chair the Militia and Police Committee and the Committee on Corporations, Insurance and Banking (now Commerce and Labor).

Watts, who was first elected four years after Keating, said she encouraged other women to run for office and was very supportive of her fellow female legislators, forming the women’s legislative caucus.

“She was a very, very strong advocate for getting more women in the General Assembly … so that we could really affect a lot more of the decisions that were being made down there,” said Sen. Toddy Puller (D-Dist. 36), who served in the House of Delegates in the last eight years that Keating was there. Puller said Keating was personally supportive and encouraging to her.

The numbers of women in the General Assembly quickly grew, with about 15 women serving in the House of Delegates at the time Watts was first elected in 1981.

The women’s caucus also helped bring new types of legislative issues to light and build momentum behind those bills. Because of the typical family roles at that time, “We had a perspective on some of the education and health issues that hadn’t really been represented before,” Watts said.

Keating was re-elected 11 times and served until early 2000, losing her 1999 re-election campaign as Republicans took control of the House.

In a Washington Post article following the 1999 defeat, Keating said her proudest legislative accomplishments were her work in the areas of family law and women’s issues.

Keating championed legislation that gave women more rights in divorce proceedings, allowing for equal distribution of property.

At the time, Virginia was known as a “dumping ground” for military divorces, Watts said, because of its divorce laws — something that Keating was well aware of as a military spouse.

She also was active in raising awareness of women’s health issues, particularly breast cancer. A breast cancer survivor, she was chief patron of a bill that required Virginia insurance companies to cover mammography.

Keating also was known for her work on consumer protection issues, such as preventing phone companies from selling customer lists.

Watts said the focus on the consumer rather than the company was new for Virginia, and Keating’s seniority as chair of the Committee on Corporations, Insurance and Banking allowed her to make a real impact.

“It’s one thing to be a pioneer, it’s another thing to then use the opportunity, and that’s what she did,” Watts said.

Sickles, who worked as a legislative volunteer for Keating for three terms, said she truly understood the issues of what was then a largely working-class community.

“She looked after people on the lower rungs,” he said.

Keating is survived by her sons John Keating (Elizabeth) of Wiesbaden, Germany; Lawrence Keating (Holly) of Charlotte, N.C.; Michael Keating (Kathy) of Centreville, Va.; daughters Maggie Jones (David) of Wilmington, N.C.; and Eileen Carnaggio (Sam) of Clarksville, Md.; sisters Constance Goodzeit (Carl) of DeSoto, Texas, and Barbara Nauman (Herb) of St. Augustine, Fla. She also is survived by 17 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren, as well as nieces, nephews and cousins.

Her husband, Lt. Col. John Keating, died in 2003.

The family will receive visitors at Jefferson Funeral Chapel (www.jeffersonfuneralchapel.com) from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 22. Funeral services will be held at Olivet Episcopal Church in Franconia at 3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 23 (visitation in the old chapel one hour prior). Burial will be held on a later date at Arlington National Cemetery. Keating’s family said that contributions in her memory may be made payable to Franconia Museum, at 6121 Franconia Road, Franconia, VA 22310.

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com