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A First Lady With Flair : Politics: Gayle Wilson is smart, articulate, charming, pretty and never forgets a joke. 'She's the woman you love to hate,' says a friend. .

January 09, 1991|ROBIN ABCARIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — With the plainclothes officer who has become her shadow since the election, she walks briskly into the outer room of her husband's new suite of offices. Heads turn; eyes follow the tall, thin blonde in the Reagan red skirt and white satin baseball jacket. Gayle Wilson utters a cheery hello before disappearing behind a heavy oak door.

Does the governor's wife pause for just a moment before leaving the room? Maybe. After all, the back of her jacket is meant to be seen. The flag of California--with its proud golden bear--is emblazoned across it.

This is encouraging. A first lady with flair, a sense of humor. Not that previous first ladies of California haven't been stylish or funny. But Nancy Reagan was a long, long time ago. And if Gloria Deukmejian was known for anything, it was her aversion to the spotlight.

Gayle Wilson is used to being center stage. She's not the kind of woman who stays home. She gets into the thick of things.

She is also charming. She is articulate. She is loyal. She has a beautiful singing voice. She never forgets a joke. And she can sew.

"It's really kind of sickening," says her close friend, San Diego family law attorney Kathryn Ashworth, who has known Wilson since their college days.

"I always introduce her as 'the woman you love to hate,' " says her pal Joann DiGennaro. "She is not only beautiful outwardly, she is beautiful inwardly."

It wasn't her internal beauty that snagged the eye of Adm. Hyman Rickover one day in 1983 at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. She was perusing the winning projects of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, a prestigious national contest for high school students, and introduced herself to Rickover, who founded the Center for Excellence in Education in MacLean, Va.

"She was articulate in discussing some of the projects in biology and immediately started speaking to us about the importance of helping students to pursue careers in math and science--particularly women," said DiGennaro, president of Rickover's center. "As she left, the admiral said, 'Hmmm. She's good-looking. Why don't you talk to her about being on our board?' "

But Rickover and DiGennaro soon learned that Wilson had more to offer than window-dressing. She had been a Westinghouse honoree herself in 1960. She had majored in biology at Stanford. And she had graduated Phi Beta Kappa, a fact that every friend of hers interviewed for this story managed to mention at least once.

In a sense, the election of Pete Wilson as governor, a job he has coveted for years, is the apotheosis of 49-year-old Gayle Wilson's career, too.

She has a long history of community volunteerism. She has educated herself on Alzheimer's disease, AIDS, mental health issues, drug-addicted babies and pregnant teen-agers, and in the process has wielded a good deal of influence on her husband, who often sounds curiously like a Democrat on these issues.

"In raw terms, you have a real great product and you don't have to do very much," said Otto Bos, Pete Wilson's longtime press secretary.

"She has been so helpful to Pete," said Pete's 88-year-old father, Jim Wilson. "Let's put it this way, to use an old-fashioned term: She wears well."

Said Bob White, Pete Wilson's chief of staff and a confidant of Gayle: "She is as much a part of the process as we ever hoped she would be. I cannot imagine not counting on her."

Some miscellany about Gayle Wilson:

* She dyes her own hair.

* She has never had plastic surgery but isn't averse to it.

* She owns a mink coat.

* She had a brief network TV career , during which she profiled the pets of high-powered Washingtonians .

* She was mugged in a Washington supermarket parking lot in 1986 .

* She went to a high school ball with Wayne Newton.

Many of Pete Wilson's associates say that Gayle has influenced her husband, a U.S. senator for eight years, in the areas of child care and public health.

Pete Wilson agrees.

"She has, over the past eight years, conducted her own education, not only by reading but by traveling around the country," said the 57-year-old governor. "She has been in hospitals, in residential homes for pregnant teen-agers and post-partum women undergoing drug rehabilitation, mental health clinics, all kinds of developmentally disabled facilities, so she has gathered to herself a great deal of practical knowledge. She has given me a great deal of information both in anecdotal form and she has given me things to read, and we just talk a great deal about things."

Said Gayle: "I have never sought to sway him on whether he should vote for the B-2 bomber or the targeted export assistance program or some of the things he has real expertise in, but there are certain things we all consider we have a certain expertise in and that's where I weigh in."

After visiting the National Institutes of Mental Health, she says she complained to him about how little money goes to mental health research.

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