JACKSON (AP) — Former Mississippi first lady Pat Fordice championed arts, literacy and beautification projects, but close friends remember her as a woman with an adventurous spirit who embraced life and loved her family.

Pat Fordice died Thursday at her Madison home, surrounded by her children and grandchildren. She was 72. She had announced in December that she had cancer, but declined to identify the kind of cancer or to discuss her treatment.

Visitation will be 9 a.m. Monday at Galloway Memorial United Methodist Church, followed by funeral services at 11 a.m. at the church.

Fordice was described Thursday as someone who displayed dignity and grace, even through difficult periods in her own life.

‘‘She was strong and resilient,’’ said Joanna Heidel, a friend of Fordice for more than 20 years. ‘‘In these last months, she was always optimistic. She did not want anybody to worry about her.’’

Fordice became a public figure after her then-husband Kirk Fordice, a brash, millionaire construction company owner, was elected in 1991 as Mississippi’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

She was instrumental in bringing two popular international art exhibitions to Jackson. In 1996, ‘‘Palaces of St. Petersburg: Russian Imperial Style’’ featured tapestries, china, paintings and other glittering objects. Two years later, the ‘‘Splendors of Versailles,’’ featured French treasures.

‘‘She was key to bringing all those things as a spokesperson. She did it so well,’’ said Marty Wiseman, a political scientist and director of Mississippi State University’s Stennis Institute of Government. ‘‘Every time that she made an appearance, she made the state proud. She was the absolute model of class as far as playing the role of first lady and former first lady.’’

Born Patricia Owens in 1934, she attended Christian College in Columbia, Mo., and Memphis State University in Tennessee. She and Kirk Fordice had known each other since they attended high school in Memphis, Heidel said.

The Fordices married in 1955 and moved to Vicksburg in 1962 so Kirk could join the family business, Fordice Construction Co.

It was during the years in Vicksburg that Joanna Heidel and her husband, Jimmy, got to know Pat and Kirk Fordice. Jimmy Heidel was state economic development director when Kirk Fordice was governor.

‘‘We traveled a lot with them. Not many people got to know her on the level that she could let go and have a good time. She loved to laugh. She adored her grandchildren and had a very good time with them,’’ Heidel said.

In 1998, Pat Fordice showed her adventurous side in a parachute jump from an airplane. Her husband wasn’t there to witness her tandem jump, and by then there were signs that their marriage was in trouble.

The Fordices divorced in 2000 after 44 years of marriage. Kirk Fordice died of leukemia in 2004 at age 70.

State Rep. Rita Martinson, R-Madison, said Pat Fordice had strong family values.

‘‘She was one of the ’Steel Magnolias’ that you hear about,’’ Martinson said. ‘‘She stood by her principles at times when other people may have buckled. She stood firmly her ground in keeping her marriage intact as long as she possibly could.’’

After leaving the Governor’s Mansion in January 2000, Pat Fordice remained active as host of a radio talk show and co-host of a television talk show for Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

She also appeared in a series of commercials for Keep Mississippi Beautiful and the Mississippi Department of Transportation as part of an antilittering campaign.

In one ad, Fordice stopped a truck driven by a litterer, pointed a finger at him and chastised: ‘‘I’m not your mama.’’

Those ads left an indelible impression, said Barbara Dorr, executive director of Keep Mississippi Beautiful.

‘‘Mrs. Fordice has become an icon for Keep Mississippi Beautiful on the same level as the crying Indian in the 1970s for Keep America Beautiful,’’ Dorr said.

In recent years, Pat Fordice had supported the children’s hospital at the University of Mississippi, the Mississippi School for the Arts, the International Ballet Competition and the Special Olympics.

In November 2005, she resigned as the city of Jackson’s interim head of human and cultural services. At the time, Fordice said the full-time job was more than she could handle.

In 2005, she was presented the outstanding Mississippi Woman Award from the Mississippi State University President’s Commission on the Status of Women for her charity work.

In accepting the award, Pat Fordice said she didn’t set out to win anything when she began volunteering and advocating her causes.

‘‘I’ve only done things I’ve loved to do,’’ she said.

Pat Fordice continued taping her television talk show, ‘‘Woman To Woman,’’ with Juanita Doty until fall 2006. The show had been on the air since 2000.

Doty said she spoke to Fordice’s son, Hunter, on Thursday.

‘‘He said Pat was the most incredible mother that there was. He said she died with the same grace and dignity that she was known for,’’ Doty said. ‘‘They had the chance to laugh and to cry and to say goodbye.’’

Pat Fordice is survived by three sons, a daughter and 12 grandchildren.

AP-CS-07-12-07 1734EDT

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