Four Georgia governors gathered for an event Monday night, sat quietly in the front row and stayed put (almost) the entire time. On this evening, their wives were in the spotlight.
For it was the unveiling of First Lady Sandra Deal’s new book, “Memories of the Mansion,” a history of the Georgia governor’s mansion told through the eyes of the families who lived there. And six of the First Ladies (and one First Son) were on hand to share their stories.
Here are some of the highlights they each offered for the book, which Sandra Deal wrote with historians Jennifer Dickey and Catherine Lewis:
Betty Foy Sanders: She was just 36 when her husband Carl became governor in 1963, and they lived in the predecessor to today’s Governor’s Mansion, called the “Granite Mansion” in Ansley Park. Her reality check came when she got to the crumbling house and a downpour caused the staff to scramble. “Go get the buckets,” yelled one. “That was my first shock,” she said. The Talmadges had held cows there, there was hardly any parking – or even silverware. It may have been haunted, too, she said. Her kids thought the house was “spooked” after they found the wallpaper had suddenly split from the wall one morning. By 1964, lawmakers finally agreed to establish the official residence at West Paces Ferry. “And if that old house could talk,” she said, “it could really tell some tales.”
Rosalynn Carter: Jimmy Carter’s wife established complicated communications strategies for the family, which was not used to living in such a cavernous mansion. “I remember standing at the top of the foyer, screaming ‘Dinner is ready’ and nobody listening,” said Rosalynn. Once, when Henry Kissinger came to visit, his advance team wanted to drill more than two dozen holes in the walls for telephone wires. "We sent him to the hotel," she cracked. At the time, state patrol officers were still giving tours of the mansion to the public. “I didn’t think that was very comforting,” she deadpanned. And that led to the start of the volunteer docent program.
Jeff Busbee (the only non-First Lady on the panel): The son of the late Gov. George and Mary Beth Busbee recalled how, just a month after moving into the mansion, a tornado ripped into the neighborhood and damaged the house, requiring a renovation. It was a sobering welcome, he said, but they quickly warmed up to the place. Busbee joked that he particularly enjoyed squeezing a friend into the kitchen dumbwaiter to ride it down to the ballroom.
Elizabeth Harris: She moved into the mansion when her husband Joe Frank took office in 1983. “I loved the grounds, and when I walked through them, I just wanted them to say Georgia, loud and clear,” she said. “We might not all live like we lived when we lived in the governor’s mansion. But it was a beautiful place because it represented the hearts of the people.” One Christmas, one little girl who visited the home looked up at her husband and said, “If you’re as rich as they say you are, how rich are you?” Later, after her mom explained to her it was owned by the taxpayers, the little girl returned with a message for the governor: “Now, you take care of my house.”
Shirley Miller: Sometimes, signature policy events are born in interesting places. Shirley remembered her husband Zell welcoming droves of elite high school students to the Mansion. As he shook hands with each of them, he asked where they were headed to college. Student after student told him they were going out of state. Zell took a pen in hand and got to work that very evening. “So on a kitchen stool on a yellow legal pad, HOPE was born.”
Marie Barnes: The wife of Roy Barnes recalled a heated tennis match with three friends at the mansion’s courts. They all ended up in the opulent fountain on the mansion’s grounds, she said, slightly embarrassed but relieved. Her most important lesson: "It's not yours, and it's like living in the lobby of a hotel." At Monday's event, she also advocated for a new sort of term limit. "In my opinion, not knowing when you're going home is very hard. If you've got one term of six years - which I would lobby for - the governor can get things done and the first lady knows when she is going home."
Sandra Deal: When the current resident of the Buckhead estate moved into the mansion in 2011, much of the staff had turned over. "And there was no one to pass on the stories. So I thought, I would invite the governors and their wives and they will share their stories. But lo and behold, they talked about politics and political friends ... and I didn't learn about anything." But soon enough, she said, she gathered the First Ladies to hear their stories and start drafting the book. "I just got curious," she said.
A footnote: Gov. Roy Barnes stood at the program's end to talk about some of the practical jokes he pulled on unsuspecting victims at the home. That led Gov. Joe Frank Harris to crack: "We got a lot more serious work done than my predecessors."
You can read our AJC colleague Jill Vejnoska’s story about the book by clicking here.