(provided by the Carnahan family)
Jean Carnahan, former U.S. Senator, Missouri First Lady, and matriarch of a family of public servants, died on Tuesday evening, January 30, 2024, at age 90 after a brief illness.
The widow of Governor Mel Carnahan, Jean was appointed to the U.S. Senate seat Mel won posthumously in 2000, becoming the first woman to represent Missouri in the Senate.
“Mom passed peacefully after a long and rich life. She was a fearless trailblazer. She was brilliant, creative, compassionate and dedicated to her family and her fellow Missourians,” her family said in a statement.
During two years in the Senate, Carnahan, a Democrat, was a tireless advocate for education, children, seniors and working families — causes she also championed during eight years as Missouri’s First Lady.
As only the fifth woman to ever serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee, she pushed to strengthen national security and improve conditions for service men and women. She secured an extension of health care benefits for returning reservists and National Guard personnel. And she was part of the first Congressional delegation to Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack.
Following the Enron scandal, as a member of the Commerce Committee, she introduced and won passage of a law requiring corporations to make swift electronic reporting of insider trading.
As First Lady, Carnahan promoted on-site day care centers for working families, supported shelters for victims of domestic abuse, volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and encouraged arts education.
She also raised funds for critically needed repairs for Missouri’s historic Governor’s Mansion and frequently opened the mansion doors to the public. The author of seven books, she published two about the mansion: “If Walls Could Talk: The Story of Missouri’s First Families,” an encyclopedic work researched over five years, and “Christmas at the Mansion.”
Her other books include “Don’t Let the Fire Go Out!,” an autobiography focusing on her years as First Lady and U.S. Senator, and “A Little Help from My Friends,” a light-hearted look at everyday life from a senior’s perspective.
Carnahan’s family has a long history of public service in Missouri. In addition to her husband’s tenure as Governor, Lieutenant Governor, State Treasurer and state legislator, daughter Robin served as Missouri Secretary of State and son Russ served in the U.S. Congress and the Missouri House.
On October 16, 2000, Mel, their son Roger, and long-time aide Chris Sifford were killed in a plane crash while heading to a campaign event in southeast Missouri. Mel was elected to the Senate posthumously three weeks later. Acting Governor Roger Wilson appointed Jean Carnahan to fill the seat left vacant by her husband’s death. She served from January 3, 2001 until November 25, 2002.
In remarks to her newly elected Senate colleagues, Carnahan observed, “I know I did not come to the U.S. Senate in the same way you did. I did not have a long-term, personal commitment to a campaign. My name has never been on a ballot. On election night, there was no victory celebration. You are here because of your win. I am here because of my loss. But we are all here to do the work of this great nation.”
Jean Carpenter Carnahan was born Dec. 20, 1933, in Washington, D.C., to Reginald and Alvina Carpenter, and grew up in the southeast D.C. working-class neighborhood of Anacostia. Her father was a plumber and her mother a hairdresser.
She met her future husband Mel, son of Missouri Congressman A.S.J. Carnahan, while they were teen-agers attending a Sunday night youth group at a neighborhood Baptist church in Washington. The two became better acquainted at Anacostia High School where they were seated next to each other in class.
They were married on June 12th, 1954. A year later, in an era when few women attended college, Carnahan graduated from George Washington University with a bachelors degree in Business and Public Administration. The couple raised four children on a farm outside the small Ozarks community of Rolla, Missouri.
Carnahan is survived by her children Russ (Debra), Robin (Juan Carlos) and Tom (Lisa), all of St. Louis, and grandchildren Austin Carnahan, Andrew Carnahan, Harper Carnahan, Adair Carnahan and Cabanne Carnahan. In addition to her husband Mel and eldest son Roger (nicknamed “Randy”), Carnahan was preceded in death by her parents and her granddaughter, Sydney Carnahan. She died at the BJC Hospice-Eveyln’s House in suburban St. Louis, where she and her family were very grateful for the attentive care and kindness shown by all the staff.
A private family service will be held at Carson Hill Cemetery near Ellsinore, where Carnahan will be laid to rest next to her husband and son. A public celebration of Carnahan’s life is being planned in St. Louis, with details to be announced at a later date.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions are requested to the Carnahan Policy Institute, which sponsors the Mel Carnahan Public Service Award and Scholarship, helping students and recognizing individuals who have improved the lives of Missourians through a commitment to education, law or public service. Donations can be made online at https://carnahanaward.org/donate/