PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Stephanie Chafee was Rhode Island's first AIDS research nurse and co-founded the state's only clinic providing free health services to the needy. Now, the multimillionaire wife of former U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee is taking on a new role: Rhode Island first lady.
Chafee's husband, Lincoln Chafee, 57, was a Republican senator from 1999 to 2006. He became an independent in 2007 and won the governor's office this month.
Stephanie Chafee, 53, has become known during that time as a wealthy philanthropist dedicated to health care-related causes. Her new position gives her a platform -- and access to the state's chief decision maker -- that will elevate that profile even more.
Stephen Hourahan, the executive director of AIDS Project Rhode Island and a key member of the gubernatorial transition team, met her 20 years ago through her work with AIDS patients, and compares her to a "whirling dervish."
"She's quite a remarkable woman, and the amazing thing about her is that she does everything separate from him. They have their own lives," he said.
Stephanie Chafee grew up on Providence's East Side in a wealthy family with more than a century of involvement in business and philanthropy. Her late father, Murray S. Danforth, was an administrator at the Rhode Island School of Design, the school her family founded in 1877, and her family was once among the owners of another state institution, The Providence Journal.
Despite her family money, she went into nursing, graduating with honors in 1981 from Boston University's nursing school, then received her MBA from the University of Connecticut. She said she was drawn to nursing because, from a young age, she wanted to care for people.
"My parents always said to me, 'Leave the world a better place than you found it, and always be able to provide for yourself,'" she said. "Nursing is a great career."
She eventually landed a job at Roger Williams Medical Center following every AIDS patient in the state -- a first for Rhode Island, which she called the best job of her life. It was around that time -- 1989 -- that Lincoln Chafee came permanently back into her life.
They had known each other from a young age. Lincoln Chafee's sister, Tribbie, was killed in a horseriding accident in 1968 when their father, John Chafee, was running for re-election as governor. After the tragedy, Stephanie, also a riding enthusiast, ended up with Tribbie's pony, Puck.
During the summer when she was 13 and working at the stables, she would see a 17-year-old Linc ride by on a moped. One day, he asked if anyone wanted a ride. Stephanie jumped at the chance.
But it was 20 years until they married. In the meantime, they'd see each other from time to time, but the relationship wasn't serious. Lincoln Chafee traveled all over the country and Canada as a professional farrier, caring for horses on harness racetracks in the United States and Canada.
"He would float in and out of my life. He wasn't ready to make any commitments," she said.
She was briefly married and divorced in the mid-1980s.
Then, after Lincoln Chafee moved back to Rhode Island, it did become serious. After an 8-week engagement, they married in January 1990. They have three children, Louisa, 19, Caleb, 16, and Thea, 13.
In 1999, she co-founded the Rhode Island Free Clinic in Providence, which provides care at no cost to those with no insurance.
Marie Ghazal, CEO of the clinic, which serves about 1,700 patients annually with a staff of mostly volunteers, says Chafee's support for the clinic goes beyond just money to garnering support among the philanthropy, business and health care communities.
"She provides her vision and her passion, which I think ignites the rest of the community," she said. "She definitely is seen as a champion and draws people in to support the work of the clinic."
While Stephanie Chafee was not a fixture on the campaign trail, her presence was felt in the form of the $1.8 million she spent on her husband's gubernatorial race. When asked how much she is worth, Chafee says the money is in a blind trust and she doesn't know.
Public records show her fortune exceeded $60 million in 2006, when Lincoln Chafee was last required to file detailed financial statements with the Senate. At the time, his spokesman said the figure was a conservative estimate.
Suzanne Carcieri, wife of current Republican Gov. Don Carcieri, occasionally waded into divisive politics, once speaking at an anti-abortion rally in the Statehouse rotunda in which participants prayed the rosary, and serving on the board of a right-wing policy institute.
Stephanie Chafee says that's not her style -- but she has plenty of ideas she'd like to pursue, including ways to deal with homelessness, perhaps by turning abandoned houses in Providence into homes.
Lincoln Chafee says he often turns to his wife for counsel, particularly about people, a subject on which he says she has an expert eye.
Stephanie says she doesn't see her role as lobbying her husband, and that Rhode Islanders didn't elect her. While more doors may be open to her now with the title of "first lady," she's still not sure the shape her new position will take.
"I will continue to be passionate at home and in my life the way I always have been," she said. "I'm going to continue to be just who I am."