September 28, 2015 Atlanta: A panel of Georgia First Ladies including Sandra Deal, from left, Marie Barnes, Shirley Miller, Elizabeth Harris, Rosalynn Carter and Betty Foy Sanders as well as Jeff Busbee talk at the Atlanta History Center as part of a book signing event for Deal's book "Memories of the Mansion: The Story of Georgia's Governor's Mansion" on Monday night September 28, 2015. /
Photo: Ben Gray
Photo: Ben Gray

Six first ladies (and four governors) walk into a room …

If much of Georgia seemed to be mysteriously devoid of political power Monday night, there’s a good reason for that:

It was all concentrated in one room at the Atlanta History Center.

In a stunning display of longevity and camaraderie, Gov. Nathan Deal and his wife, Sandra, were joined by three previous Georgia governors and five previous first ladies for a rollicking discussion of their contributions to a new book, “Memories of the Mansion.” Written by Mrs. Deal and Kennesaw State University history professors Jennifer Dickey and Catherine Lewis, the book features stories and personal photos of all eight families that have occupied the Greek Revival mansion on West Paces Ferry Rd. that was built in 1968.

The first ladies’ participation had been well advertised. But it was a surprise to much of the audience when Gov. Deal and his predecessors — Roy Barnes, Zell Miller and Joe Frank Harris — came striding into the auditorium and took their seats in the front row of the auditorium. For indeed, this night belonged to their better halves — joining Mrs. Deal onstage were her predecessors Marie Barnes, Shirley Miller, Elizabeth Harris, Rosalynn Carter and Betty Foy Sanders, as well as Jeff Busbee, son of the late Gov. George Busbee.

They seemed to relish this case of role reversal, although Marie Barnes clearly was having second thoughts when the mic got around to her.

“I have to say, Roy has been waiting for this for a long time, for me to be at the podium and for him to be in the audience,” she quipped, while her husband pretended to rub his hands together in anticipation. “I was not known as the first lady. I was known as the First Heckler from the audience.”

Betty Sanders went first and had the crowd hooting with laughter at her tales of being the last first lady to occupy the current mansion’s predecessor. She was 36 and the mother of two young children when her husband, Carl, took office in 1963 and they moved into the so-called “Stone Mansion” in Ansley Park. It was an old house in constant need of repair and lacking in much of the niceties needed to entertain as governor and first lady.

“I said, ‘Do we have any table linens,’ (and the answer was) ‘No.’,” Sanders recalled of moving in. “‘Do we have a full set of china, No. Do we have a whole set of silverware, No.’ It had governor’s mansion engraved on it, so where do you think it went? It’s called ‘souvenirs.’”

Sanders helped plan and furnish the new mansion, although she’d never get to live in it (back then, Georgia’s governors were limited to a single four-year term). Each of her successors took the time to heap praise on her Monday night, before sharing some of their best memories of living in the mansion:

Rosalynn Carter related that then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was coming to Atlanta and he was invited to stay in the governor’s mansion. “But the day before (the scheduled visit) his advance team came and wanted to drill 23 holes in the mansion floors for their telephones. We sent him to a hotel!”

Jeff Busbee recalled that his father worked hard to attract international business to Georgia during his two terms, but also liked to play hard at practical joking. One time a state senator equally well known for his practical jokes departed from a working dinner at the mansion only to be stopped near the gate and made to open his car trunk by a state trooper. Inside was a large box of the official state silverware he’d supposedly “lifted” from the mansion — placed there by that jokester Gov. Busbee.

Elizabeth Harris said they were all caretakers of their temporary home’s exquisite furnishings and artwork, which had been collected by the Fine Arts Commission that Gov. Sanders created when the state decided to go ahead with building the new mansion. One of the official rooms featured an Aubusson Rug on the floor and “I remember the French ambassador coming in and saying, ‘You’re walking on this rug? It should be hanging on a wall.’”

Shirley Miller recalled how her husband, Zell, had invited all the valedictorians from the state’s public and private high schools to a reception at the mansion. “He was shaking hands with everyone and asking, ‘Where are you going to go to college?’ Many were going to leave Georgia. So, late on a spring afternoon, on a stool in the kitchen, on a yellow legal pad, HOPE was born,” she said, as thunderous applause greeted her mention of the college scholarship program that many consider her husband’s greatest legacy.

Marie Barnes said that she and her husband, Roy, showed up unexpectedly early at the mansion, after all the staff had gone home. The refrigerator had been cleaned out in anticipation of their eventual arrival, so the new governor called his brother, Ray, and his wife and invited them over for dinner. “Ray said ‘That’ll be fun.’ And Roy said, ‘Stop by KFC on your way here.’….(When they arrived) They plopped the bucket down on the counter and said, ‘Roy, you’ve been in public housing for one day and we’re already having to feed you!’”

Near the end of the evening, the four governors were given a chance to speak; maybe they knew they’d been outclassed by the first ladies, because they kept their remarks brief. And, at least in Joe Frank Harris’s case, politically correct

“I just want to say a word of appreciation to all our first ladies,” the lanky ex-governor stood and turned around to address the crowd before turning back to look at the stage. “For putting up with the governors who lived in that mansion.”

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