Sandra Deal, Georgia’s former first lady, dies at 80

Tirelessly advocated for education
Sandra Deal, former first lady of Georgia. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM



Sandra Deal, former first lady of Georgia. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Sandra Deal, a 15-year veteran of teaching language arts in Hall County, committed to touring Georgia’s classrooms and reading to students after her husband Nathan Deal was elected governor in 2011.

“When we started in office, she said she would not sit around that mansion and drink sweet tea and read magazines,” her personal assistant, Ember Bentley, recalled. “She wanted to be useful and did not want to waste time.”

In eight years in the Governor’s Mansion, she completed her commitment, having 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.

Sandra Deal, the former first lady of Georgia who devoted her life to education and literacy, died Tuesday from breast cancer that metastasized into brain cancer. She was 80.

“She brought an exceptional level of beauty, grace, dignity and warmth to that office,” said David Ralston, Speaker of the House of the Georgia General Assembly. “She could be in a room and pick out that one person who needed a lift, whose life needed to be touched, whether it was a school child where she had gone to read or a prisoner working on a detail.”

Sandra Deal reading "I Got Rhythm" to students at Atlanta's Whitefoord Elementary School in 2016 for a Read Across America and Get Georgia Reading event. She was a fierce advocate for education in Georgia. Ben Gray /

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

“She was always the heart of what was going on in the governor’s office,” said Bentley. “She made sure we always got back to the people. If any of the staff got outside of remembering who we worked for, at the end of the day she made sure to remind you that you worked for the people.”

A typical day on the road as first lady would be being driven to a rural county, reading at three or four schools, speaking to a local community organization, and meeting with a state agency that was working with child welfare. “She didn’t want to stay in a hotel,” Bentley said, “so she would spend the night in a state park in one of the cabins, and in the morning we would have breakfast with some of the supporters of the park.

“If it was a good day, at the end of the day she would say, like her favorite hymn, we had been a channel of blessing.”

In a statement Tuesday, Gov. Brian Kemp said her “generosity of spirit ensured not only that she was beloved by her students, but also an influential force in their lives, leaving an imprint not just on their minds but also on their hearts.”

Sandra Deal was born Emilie Sandra Dunagan in Gainesville, Georgia, on Feb. 1, 1942, and grew up on a farm. “Born to parents who were also teachers, I grew up in a household that valued a sound and strong education,” she wrote in a piece for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2011. “I learned firsthand how important reading is to every child’s long-term success.”

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. In 1962, she went on a blind date with Nathan Deal after a church choir rehearsal, and they were married in 1966.

“Their marriage was a loving one,” said Brian Robinson, a deputy chief of staff for Gov. Deal. “He is an introvert, the kind of guy who would go to his own fundraiser, pick up a plate of food and sit down by himself. He wanted to go when his portion of the event was done. But she was an extrovert and she’d say, ‘Now Nathan, these people have been waiting to see you.’ And she would make him stay until every person who wanted a picture got one.

“When she would be talking — and she had strong opinions on a lot of things — he would just be watching her with a big smile on his face,” Robinson said. “He adored her, he really did.”

“If we were at a party talking, she was never looking over your shoulder waiting for someone more important to come along, because you were enough,” said Jen Talaber Ryan, a communications specialist who was assigned to Sandra Deal.

Ryan believed her years as a teacher made her a more compassionate first lady. “As a teacher, she could look around the room and see the kid who was bullied or shy,” she said. “As first lady, she was so good at looking around a room and noticing that someone was uncomfortable, someone who didn’t matter in the pecking order of that room, and then walking right over to that person. I truly believe that was the middle school teacher in her.”

Her colleagues recalled how humble she was.

“The first lady, any room she goes into, people know who she is,” said Robinson. “But she was so humble she never got full of herself. Every room she went into, she insisted on wearing a name tag. She wore it everywhere she went, even places where she was the guest of honor.”

“She was raised very modest. People wanted to dress her and make clothes for her and that was just not Mrs. Deal,” said Bentley. “She said she was just fine going to Belk’s and getting herself a nice new suit.”

She sometimes gave tours of the Governor’s Mansion to tourists. “I used to joke that if a docent gave the tour, it was 30 minutes, and if she gave it, it was two and a half hours,” said Ryan. “There was no task too small.”

During her time as first lady, she co-wrote the book on the history of the Governor’s Mansion, “Memories of the Mansion: The Story of Georgia’s Governor’s Mansion” with two professors from Kennesaw State University. To encourage volunteerism and promote community service, she launched a statewide campaign called “With a Servant’s Heart.” She served as co-chair of the Georgia Literacy Commission and chaired Georgia’s Older Adults Cabinet, which works to improve the lives of seniors.

Mrs. Deal was surprised in 2017 when she and her husband attended a ceremony at her alma mater, Georgia College and State University, for the opening of a new institute dedicated to professional development for teachers. She had not been told in advance it would be named the Sandra Dunagan Deal Center for Early Language and Literacy.

“Learning to read and having a love of learning just opens the doors and makes life possible and great,” she told the Milledgeville Union-Recorder at the opening. “Education to me is the key, and that takes people one-on-one just getting out there and doing what they can to try to help. That’s what I want to do just as long as I can.”

Mrs. Deal was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer in 2018 after a routine mammogram and went public with her diagnosis to encourage women to get mammograms. Her cancer spread.

She was a long-time member of First Baptist Church of Gainesville and was part of a women’s prayer group there for many years.

She is survived by her husband Nathan; her children Jason, Mary Emily, Carrie, and Katie; and six grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending.