Dr. Melinda McClanahan, Robert Porter, Chief Gary Batton and Assistant Chief Jack Austin Jr.Photo Provided

Dr Melinda McClanahan and husband Robert Porter visit with Chief Gary Batton and Assistant Chief Jack Austin, Jr. during a recent trip to Durant, Oklahoma.

McClanahan sisters blazed trails through show business and science

By Shelia Kirven
June 3, 2024

Dr. Melinda McClanahan, a globally recognized scientist, recently visited the Choctaw Nation Headquarters in Durant. She is the sister of movie, Broadway, and Hollywood star Rue McClanahan. Rue was best known for portraying Blanche Devereaux in the hit comedy series The Golden Girls. Dr. McClanahan’s husband, Robert Porter, accompanied her on the visit.

The sisters grew up in Oklahoma, daughters of William Edwin “Bill” McClanahan, an oil field operator and WWII Chief Petty Officer for the Seabees in the Pacific theater, and Dreda Rheua-Nell (Medaris) McClanahan, a beautician.

Eddi Rue, or Rue as she was known, was born in Healdton, and Melinda, five and a half years younger, was born in Ardmore. They lived for several years of their childhood in Durant and completed high school in Ardmore, where Rue also owned and operated a dance studio.

Their Choctaw great-grandfather, Levi “Running Hawk” Airington, was born in Nashoba. He married Emma Mock and had six children. Airington lived his entire life in the Indian Territory.

When asked how she and Rue became so driven in their careers, Melinda attributed their mother as the guiding force.

“My mother was a raging independent businesswoman,” said Melinda. “She was before her time and a go-getter, one of the most energetic, outgoing women you’d ever meet.”

With their father being gone in the service during their growing up years, “She raised us to think it’s just a given that we could do anything we wanted to do,” said Melinda. “I never once heard her say, ‘You can’t do that because you’re a girl.’ It was a very free, very open environment that we were raised in. She encouraged us to be independent.”

Melinda played piano from age five and had thought she would go into music. After high school, she married and began her family, then attended college part-time while her children were in school.

While at Texas Woman’s University (TWU) in Denton, Texas, Melinda was required to take a biology class. She said she was hooked and changed her major to biology. She completed a bachelor’s degree in 1971, a master’s degree in 1972, and a doctorate in radiation biology in 1974, all with a 4.0 grade point average.

“At that time, it was kind of strange for women to be in science, so I was kind of a pioneer of the day,” said Melinda.
She was hired as an assistant professor at Northeast Louisiana University.

“I was the first woman ever hired by that department,” she said. There were 15 PhD tenured men on the faculty and her. “That was in 1974. Four years later, 1978, I became their boss.”

Melinda became head of the Department of Biology and remained in that position for 12 years.

In 1984, The People’s Republic of China invited her to Beijing to teach a three-week course at a medical school, which she said was life-changing.

In 1988, her husband took a job in New Guinea. She took a year’s sabbatical and did research. In 1990, she accepted the Dean of Science and Engineering position at Highland’s University in Las Vegas, New Mexico and earned an MBA degree. After four years, she felt the call for federal service and went to work for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C., as director of the Office of Exploratory Research. After five years, she moved to the Agricultural Research Service, Fort Collins, Colorado, as associate area director for the northern plains’ region, overseeing eight states and 42 research labs. She returned to Washington., D.C. and became CIO for the agency, where she stayed until retirement in 2009.

In 2024-2015 she traveled to Cambodia to set up a science program for the American University of Phnom Penh. She also served as the Chair of the Board of Directors for the Soil and Water Conservation Society and as an advisor to the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES).

Melinda had four children. Her daughter MarCia is professor at a tribal college in Washington; son Brenden is a vice president for IBM, an AISES board member and very involved in Choctaw heritage; her son Shawn, an inventor and entrepreneur, passed away in 2013; and daughter Amelia is an animal communicator who travels the world lecturing and guiding safaris.

Rue McClanahan attended the University of Tulsa (T.U.), majoring in Theatre and German, making the National Honor Society, and graduating Phi Beta Kappa.

“Rue was always an actress. That’s all she ever wanted to do,” Melinda said.

After she graduated from T.U., Rue began acting in California’s Pasadena Playhouse.

Melinda said, “It was a very hard road. It’s a difficult business to break through.”

She then acted in off-Broadway productions while working odd jobs to support herself.

“She never lost her focus, never ever,” said Melinda. “She was always an actress, first and foremost.”

When she was performing the off-Broadway production of “Who’s Happy Now,” world-famous screenwriter and producer Norman Lear hand-picked and cast her in a guest role in the highly acclaimed television series All in the Family. It was Rue’s first television role.

After appearing in All in the Family, the actress/comedian became well-known for her roles in television sitcoms. McClanahan appeared as a regular in the 1970s hit television series “Maude” (1972-78), starring Bea Arthur. She appeared as Aunt Fran Crowley on “Mama’s Family” (1983-84) and again as Blanche Devereaux in “The Golden Palace” (1992-93).

Maude and All in the Family were considered controversial yet critically acclaimed comedy shows. They gave a voice to real-life issues of the 1970s, including political, racial, and religious equality and gender discrimination. They provided a platform to identify and fight back against prejudices. As a woman during that time, Rue took on tough and challenging roles.

According to Melinda, it was important for Rue to be in a series that tackled those questions.

“Oh, completely. You realize Rue and the other actors around were reading lines. It was the writers and the director and producer who were really pushing these issues. The actors were just there to convey it across the screen or across the film. But she would not have done a role that she didn’t believe in. She had a great, very high integrity and a high moral compass. It sounds corny, but it was true of my sister,” said Melinda. “She was very, very deeply devoted to justice and to equality, and to non-discrimination and to animal care and to health, just all of these social issues that we still have today. She really was glad that she could do a little bit, maybe, to open someone’s eyes or heart.”

Rue McClanahan stands on stage with an Emmy award.
Photo Provided

Choctaw tribal member Rue McClanahan won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for The Golden Girls in 1987.

Rue was probably best known as Blanche Devereaux in The Golden Girls, (1985-92) co-starring with Betty White, Bea Arthur, and Estelle Getty as four women living together in Miami. She won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for that series in 1987. The four stars became television icons, and their legacies live on through television reruns and continued sales of memorabilia merchandise, even years after the show ended.

There is a certain cult-like following for The Golden Girls, and events are still held solely to connect fans, such as cruises and conventions. Melinda speaks at many events and says she has had people cry when they meet her, finding out that she is Rue’s sister.

Rue could capture a room and command an audience. She appeared on and off Broadway, in movies, and on television.
Her final role was in the 2008 cable series “Sordid Lives.” She died in New York in 2010 at the age of 76 after a series of health complications.

According to Melinda, Rue wasn’t like any of the characters that she played.

“She liked to go home after work and do little crafty things. She loved animals. One time, when I visited her in Los Angeles, she had eight dogs and seven cats, I think. She cared for them; she really loved them. She was a warm-hearted family person,” explained Melinda. “My kids, her nieces and nephews, she was very close to and loved them. But she did the glitzy things she had to do. She went to the Academy Awards, she went to the Emmys, she went to parties that she had to go to, and she would have an occasional party at her house. But she wasn’t the type of person that had to have the constant praise and adoration. She could just go home and be a normal person.”

Rue also became one of the first to help establish the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which became a household name.

Rue had one son, Mark Bish, a professional musician.

According to Melinda, Mark once commented that there was more to Rue than people knew. She was an artist and would create intricate drawings, had constant creative energy, and never turned down a request for an autograph.

When asked how Rue would feel about The Golden Girls still being so popular today and about the new fans of the show, Melinda said, “She would be flabbergasted! But she would also be truly thrilled about it. I talked to her about this several times after the show had been on four or five years and was really hitting on all cylinders. She said everywhere she went she talked with people who knew and loved her.”

According to Melinda, Rue would say, “‘That’s not me they love, it’s Blanche they love. They don’t know me.”

“I would say, ‘Rue, you can’t separate the two. Your vivaciousness and your energy, your love for people and your sense of humor, all of that comes through in the role of Blanche,” said Melinda. “She has some other characteristics that you don’t have, but no, people love you.”

Melinda is proud to have a sister who reached such showbiz heights.

“I was very proud of her. I was very proud of her then, and I’m proud of her now. We would call and talk on the phone; we were goofy together. As sisters, we were very close,” said Melinda. “We liked to do stupid things together. We liked to exchange ridiculous, dumb gifts at Christmas and at birthdays. We really had fun together.”

According to Melinda, the pair were like two peas in a pod.

“My voice sounds so much like hers; it confuses people. They think they know me, and I will say, no, you’ve heard my sister on television.”

One of Melinda’s favorite memories was of Rue sending a box of a hundred pairs of shoulder pads she had cut out of clothes as a gag birthday gift. Melinda immediately began to make a quilt out of them and sent it back to Rue for her next birthday. Rue laughingly replied that she could have used it as a stole if she had made it a bit longer. Melinda said Rue had the quilt on the back of her couch until she died.

Melinda said she and Rue’s son, Mark, had talked of what they thought Rue would be proudest of in her career.
“I think she was most proud of the work she did on stage,” said Melinda. “[and that she would want to be remembered as a] talented, creative, brave actress who kept her feet on the ground.”

As for their Choctaw heritage, Melinda said she did the family genealogical research and found their great-grandfather, grandmother and her siblings listed on the Dawes Rolls, and their Choctaw heritage was documented from that.

“She [Rue] became very enthusiastic, knowing it wasn’t just rumors and family tales,” Melinda said, “She was very proud of being a Choctaw, and it’s funny because in all her fame and all the movies she did and TV and stage, very few people today knew she had Choctaw heritage. So, I want to make sure people know it.”

Melinda said that her sister was very smart and one of the most generous people she had ever known.

“She was a highly brilliant, intellectual woman,” said Melinda. “I miss her like crazy.”