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Claudia Zimmerman Riley, who served briefly as Arkansas' first lady, died Monday at age 87.

She was the widow of Bob C. Riley, the state's lieutenant governor from 1971 to 1975. On Jan. 3, 1975, when Gov. Dale Bumpers resigned to take a seat in the U.S. Senate, Riley served out the final 11 days remaining in Bumpers' term.

She made a lot of friends in politics and elsewhere.

"Claudia was just a magnificent woman. ... She was a lovely woman in every way," former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker said.

The Rileys, who married in 1956, were longtime residents of Arkadelphia, and they played host to some of the nation's most prominent Democrats.

"Orval Faubus, Bill Clinton, President Clinton, Sen. William Fulbright, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter ... they were all here," Claudia Riley told PBS' Frontline in an interview. "We were gregarious people and Bob always brought them home and I loved it. ... It was fun to be in politics."

Bob Riley, a World War II veteran who was wounded on the battlefield in Guam, returned home legally blind with a black patch over one eye. Friends say the other eye functioned poorly, if at all.

But his wife helped him succeed as a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University and later as a Democratic politician, driving him to campaign events and making sure he could greet by name the voters he could not see.

"She was not only his eyes, but his hands and feet," said Mary Root, who lived down the street from the Rileys for decades.

Her skills were apparent on the campaign trail.

"She had an incredible ability to remember faces," said another friend, former Clark County prosecutor Henry Morgan. "She would identify people and then tell Bob, whispering in his ear, 'This is so-and-so.' Everybody was amazed that he knew who they were."

She also helped him excel as a professor, grading papers and keeping in contact with his former students, friends said.

At homecoming time, she would invite groups of returning alumni to her home, feeding them and making them feel welcome, Root said.

"She just never forgot anybody and looked for so many ways to make everybody feel good around her," Root said. "We've lost a real treasure."

Ouachita Baptist professor Hal Bass described Claudia Riley as "very, very loyal, very capable, very competent and she was lots of fun."

"She was devoted to Bob. ... She was right there beside him, helping him at every turn," Bass said.

Her husband died in 1994 and she mourned, friends say. But eventually, she met a man named Bill Watson and "they became soulmates and partners" during her remaining years, Morgan said.

"She didn't let life end at the death of Bob Riley. She continued her life and she continued having a good time. She continued helping people whenever she could," Morgan said.

Riley was a longtime member of First Baptist Church in Arkadelphia. She is survived by one daughter, Megen Riley.

Metro on 09/17/2015

Print Headline: 1st lady for 11 days, Claudia Riley dies

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