Judge Allison Barnes Salter (L) poses for a photograph with her siblings Harlan Barnes (C) and Alyssa Barnes (R) in their parents’ home in Marietta Friday, November 30, 2018. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: Steve Schaefer
Photo: Steve Schaefer

Former first kids reveal what life in the Georgia Governor’s Mansion is like

When Brian Kemp takes office, the mansion will home to teenagers again

The elevator doors open. A bunch of strangers look at you. You’re in your pajamas.

The recurring nightmare scenario happened to Alyssa Barnes not long after her dad, former Gov. Roy Barnes, was inaugurated in 1999. She came downstairs one January morning, not realizing public tours had started again following the holiday hiatus.

“I was like, ‘Hi!’ and went right back up,” said Barnes, a Samford University student at the time.

Jeff Busbee knows what that’s like.

“I remember sitting in the kitchen, having a bowl of cereal, looking up and there’s a group of tourists,” said Busbee, whose father, the late George Busbee, was governor from 1975 to 1983. “I remember it being a bit of a fishbowl environment.”

When Brian Kemp takes office next month, the Georgia Governor’s Mansion will be home to teenagers for the first time since the Barnes administration. 

MORE: “I’m just Marty” - a visit with Georgia’s incoming first lady

Dan Perdue, the youngest of four siblings, was a 21-year-old Georgia Tech student when his dad, now serving as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, succeeded Barnes as governor in 2002.

Incoming first teens Jarrett Kemp, 19, is a University of Georgia sophomore; her sisters Amy Porter, 16, and Lucy, 18, are in their sophomore and senior years at Athens Academy. First Lady Sandra Deal has extended a warm welcome, recently arranging for the Kemps to tour their future home.

“Our children were grown when we moved into the mansion and our grandchildren are in school in other parts of the state, so it was often just the two of us,” Deal said. “I think the Kemp family will enjoy having the mansion ring with laughter and activity as it did with some of Georgia’s prior first families.”

PAST COVERAGE: Georgia’s former first family members gathered for the launch of Sandra Deal’s book “Memories of the Mansion”

Lucy and Amy Porter Kemp will finish the school year at Athens Academy. Lucy will start college in the fall and Amy Porter will decide whether to switch to an Atlanta school.

“They’re excited,” said their mom, future First Lady Marty Kemp, during an interview at the family’s home on a secluded patch of acreage in Athens-Clarke County. “They’ve grown up on this farm since they can remember.”

Few people can fully relate to what the Kemp daughters are in for as residents of 391 West Paces Ferry Road.

“They’re about to live in a place they never dreamed,” Alyssa Barnes said. “It’s a really cool experience, but it takes some getting used to.”

Jeff Busbee with the family dog, Sam, at the Georgia Governor’s Mansion in 1975. Photo: AJC Archive at GSU Library
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Busbee was 14 when his dad became governor. The 18 rolling acres surrounding their new home gave him pause at first.

“Am I going to have to cut all this grass?” he asked. Freed from that challenge, he faced one anyone can appreciate: high school.

“Being 14 can be an awkward age anyway,” said Busbee, who attended The Westminster Schools. “I remember going to school and having a state trooper take me. I was like, ‘Okay, you can drop me off like a block away.’ The last thing you want to do is stick out.”

Gov. George Busbee and family during his tenure. Family photo provided to the AJC

Harlan Barnes and his family became close to the officers assigned to their security detail.

“Mom and Dad would be gone, it’d be a Tuesday night. I’d go hang out with whoever was on duty. We’d watch a basketball game,” recalled Barnes, who had graduated from Furman University by the time his dad took office, and lived in the mansion with his parents during part of Barnes’ term. “We’re all still friends with a number of the troopers.”

There was one particularly memorable bonding experience.

“I almost got shot,” he said, somewhat hyperbolically. He’d returned from dinner with friends after the security gate had been closed for the night. He didn’t have his phone on him, and figured scaling the fence would be a good idea. It was not.

“Do exactly what the state trooper tells you to do,” he deadpanned, offering his advice to the state’s incoming first teens.

The Georgia Governor’s Mansion, a three-floor, 30-room home in the heart of Buckhead, was built in 1967 and opened on Jan. 1, 1968. Prior executive residences in Atlanta were located downtown and in Ansley Park. The Old Governor’s Mansion in Milledgeville, home to governors from 1839 to 1868, is now a museum.

Chip Carter, son of then Gov. Jimmy Carter, skateboards in front of the Georgia Governor’s Mansion in 1971. Photo: AJC Archive at GSU Library
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The current residence has been home to the late Govs. Lester Maddox, Busbee and Zell Miller, former Govs. Harris, Barnes and Sonny Perdue, former Gov. and President Jimmy Carter and now Gov. Nathan Deal and their families. Sandra Deal, working with Kennesaw State University history professors Jennifer Dickey and Catherine Lewis, published “Memories of the Mansion” in 2015. Among its revelations: Maddox, who was governor from 1967 to 1971, had a ramp built so his pet goose, Mac, could get in and out of the fountain out front.

“I just want to say a word of appreciation to all our first ladies,” former Gov. Joe Frank Harris said at a book launch event at the Atlanta History Center, “for putting up with the governors who lived in that mansion.”

Joe Frank Harris Jr. was at the University of Georgia when his father became governor in January 1983. (One of the younger Harris’ Lambda Chi Alpha pledge class brothers was, coincidentally, Brian Kemp.)

“Nobody ever thinks your dad’s going to get elected governor,” Harris Jr. said. “It’s surreal.”

Joe Frank Harris Jr. at the Governor's Mansion during his dad's time as governor. Family photo provided to the AJC.

He fondly recalls playing football with his buddies on the mansion’s grounds and maintains that its interiors have never looked more beautiful than when his mother, Elizabeth, oversaw holiday decorations with garden club members from across the state joining the effort.

“They would work all year doing the tussie mussies and the potpourri,” he said. “It was like walking through a dream.”

He never boasted about his status around campus, and that humility served him well when the stroke of his dad’s pen put a crimp in some students’ socializing. Legal drinking age had been 19; it’s been 21 as of Sept. 30, 1986, thanks to legislation Gov. Harris signed in 1985.

Joe Frank Harris Jr. with his dad, then State Rep. Joe Frank Harris, at the Georgia Capitol in 1974. Photo: AJC Archive at GSU Library
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Everyone was happy after Harris Jr. proposed to his future bride in the terrace garden outside the mansion, though. He and Brooke held their pre- and post-wedding festivities at the property as well, and she tossed her bouquet from the window of the mansion’s presidential suite. The mansion has been the site of other first-family weddings over the years, including those of Virginia Maddox and George Carnes in 1970 and Beth Talbot Busbee and Robert Wiggins in 1975.

Cobb State Court Judge Allison Barnes Salter and John Salter exchanged vows and held their reception on the mansion grounds in 2001.

“A few years ago I had a hankering to take the girls to where we got married. Mom called Mrs. Deal and she was over the moon to give us a tour,” Salter said. “That was a very special experience.”

She and her siblings all talked about their appreciation for longtime mansion chef Holly Chute, now for the state departments of Agriculture and Economic Development.

“I’d never had Beef Wellington” before devouring Chute’s delicacy, Harlan Barnes recalled.

“I was 19. I didn’t know how to boil water,” said Alyssa Barnes, who learned to cook thanks to her expert tutelage.

“The cinnamon ice cream!” Salter rhapsodized.

The outgoing first couple also will remember fondly the mansion staff.

“They’ve become an extension of our family,” Sandra Deal said. “We’ve come to love all of them. Of course, I’ll also miss all the people who come to see the mansion. It’s wonderful to be able to welcome them and let them enjoy the beauty of this wonderful home. We are so grateful that we’ve had the opportunity to live here.”

Judge Allison Barnes Salter (L) poses for a photograph with her siblings Harlan Barnes (C) and Alyssa Barnes (R) in their parents’ home in Marietta Friday, November 30, 2018. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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