A crowd of about 300 showed up to honor the Deals, as well as the renowned civic leader J. Veronica Biggins, who heads the SCAD board of trustees and sits on numerous other boards including those of Southwest Airlines, the Woodruff Arts Center and Metro Atlanta Chamber.
“Gov. Deal, we are especially honored to be here with you,” said Biggins, who served as assistant to the president of the United States and director of presidential personnel during former President Bill Clinton’s tenure and was saluted by former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and corporate leader Juanita Baranco during the event. “Wesley Woods honors all races, all religions, all income levels. ... We’re all here in support of a mission: a wonderful place for older adults to belong.”
The evening became emotional as Deal addressed the room. Since becoming a widower, he said, he’s learned that kind words, notes and other gestures “are the salve that can cure a grieving heart. Tonight, you have lavished that salve all over me, and I thank you.”
Videos played during the event featured images of the Deals over the years and memories from those close to Sandra Deal.
“When I first got to the mansion, Mrs. Deal said, ‘Now Ember, you know we’re not going to sit around this place and just drink sweet tea and read magazines. I want at least three things to do every day. I said, ‘Yes, ma’am,’” said Ember Bishop Bentley, who served as special assistant to the first lady. “… Literacy was so important to her because she said, ‘If we can teach a child to read, they can read to learn. And they can become model citizens in our state, and it really gives them a hand up as a contributing citizen.’”
Sandra Deal died in August 2022 at 80 after battling cancer.
Credit: Wesley Woods Foundation
Credit: Wesley Woods Foundation
She attended Georgia College and State University at Milledgeville, earning a bachelor’s in elementary education in 1963 and a master’s in elementary education in 1968. Deal was governor from 2011-2019, during which time Sandra Deal, who had been a language arts teacher, championed early learning.
“One of the things that I will miss most when my husband Nathan leaves public office is traveling around the state and reading to children,” she wrote in a piece about Georgia Pre-K Week in 2018.
By the time the Deals left West Paces Ferry Road, she had read to students in all of Georgia’s 159 counties, including more than 1,000 schools and pre-K programs. She also oversaw donations of thousands of books, and advocated tirelessly for Georgia’s students to get the resources they needed.
“You could see the joy in first lady Deal’s face when she would engage with young children,” Frank Berry, who retired as commissioner of the Department of Community Health in 2021, said in a video. “She never did anything to bring credit to herself. It was always about the first lady making others feel good about themselves and the work that they were doing.”
After leaving office, Nathan Deal transitioned to the classroom, an environment where his wife always thrived. He taught classes including one called “Politics in the Peach State” at the University of North Georgia, where a room is named for him, and contributed to an edition of the textbook “The Basics of American Government.”
“Gov. Deal was a guest lecturer in one of my ‘Road to Congress’ class in 2019 before he began teaching his class at UNG,” said Carl Cavalli, UNG professor of political science. “While I’m not surprised that he was able to capture the interest of my students (good politicians should be able to relate to their constituents), I was very impressed at his ability to seamlessly integrate his discussion into the material I was covering. His discussion provided the class with real-world support to my lectures.”
Today, Deal is teaching a continuing education class on government at Brenau University and is working on a children’s book about Bill and Veto, the cats who took up residence at the Governor’s Mansion to keep the chipmunk population in check.
“He feels very compelled to continue her legacy,” said Chris Riley, who served as Deal’s chief of staff. “He’s doing all he can to continue making sure children love to read.”
Emilie Sandra Dunagan, who grew up on a farm in Gainesville, went on a blind date In 1962 with Nathan Deal after a church choir rehearsal. They married in 1966.
“The best part of my story has to be my wife. She was a strong woman. She was an energetic woman. She loved people. And she was always willing to reach out to help people,” Deal said in a video played during Heroes, Saints & Legends, which raised more than $405,000. “She was certainly a great wife and a great first lady for the state of Georgia. That’s the greatest legacy that I can have, to be a partner in that process. I’m trying my best to carry on.”
Past reporting by staff writers Phil Kloer and Eric Stirgus was used in this article.