OPINION: Sandra Deal was a first lady to Georgia, a second mom for governor’s staff

In the high-stakes political world where spouses can make staff members feel like colleagues, friends, or hired help, staff members who worked with former first lady Sandra Deal said she didn’t just make them feel like family — they became her family and she became theirs.

The wife of two-term Gov. Nathan Deal, Sandra Deal died earlier this week after a battle with breast cancer.

She left behind a close-knit group of former staff members, from Deal’s decades in public life and campaigns, who remembered her this week as the constant heart of the Deal political operation.

“She made everyone feel special, she made everyone feel important, and I think that was just her magic,” said Ember Bentley, who worked as special assistant to the first lady.

Bentley and the other former Deal staffers I spoke with this week described the former First Lady as a woman so unpretentious she bought her inaugural gown at J.C. Penny, but one who also made people, from Capitol staffers to state prisoners to world dignitaries, feel at ease and special.

Lindsay Strickland was a young campaign staffer for Nathan Deal, who had already been a member of Congress for several terms by the time he launched his bid for governor.

On one of her first days on staff, driving with the Deals late at night after a day on the campaign trail, Sandra Deal sent Nathan Deal to the store to buy milk and to “get Lindsey whatever she wants!”

“He was driving, she was in the passenger seat, and I was in the backseat like one of their children,” Strickland said. “They were such a real family, and if you are part of that team, you’re automatically part of the family.”

Being family to Sandra Deal meant she threw all manner of celebrations for the governor’s staff members and their families at the stately governor’s mansion, from baby showers to engagement parties, usually with a simple menu of lemonade, sweet tea and cupcakes.

Joy Forth, the director of the governor’s mansion under Deal said both of the Deals also took a particular interest in the staffers working at the governor’s mansion who were part of a work-release program through the Department of Corrections.

“There was a warmth and kindness that she shared with everyone, and especially with those individuals that probably have not received a lot of warmth and kindness in their lives.”

At Thanksgiving, the first lady took the governor’s office staff to the Atlanta Transitional Center, where the work-release staff from the governor’s mansion lived, to serve them Thanksgiving dinner.

And at Christmastime, she planned a dinner with just her, the governor, and the work-release staff.

“Mrs. Deal wanted to make sure that they had a Christmas meal and that they knew that they were family to them,” Ember Bentley said. “They would all get dressed up and they would sit down and break bread together.”

Jen Talaber Ryan, a former press staffer to the governor, said the lesson she’ll take from the first lady is the importance of treating people with respect and putting them at ease, no matter who they are.

Ryan once accompanied Deal on an interview with Clark Atlanta University’s public radio station when the station pulled out all the stops to welcome her, including a catered lunch with the host who would interview her.

“She’s talking with the host and noticed that she was so nervous sitting with the first lady her hands were shaking, so she couldn’t cut up whatever was on her plate,” Ryan remembered. “Mrs. Deal doesn’t miss a beat. She reached over with her knife and fork and started cutting her food and just kept right on talking.”

The interview went so well that the First Lady recorded promos for the station, declaring that “WCLK is my station for smooth listening!”

Like so many others, Deal sent Ryan a note when her baby was born. “It said she looked forward to watching me be the mother she knew I’d become.”

Katie Byrd, who is now communications director for Gov. Brain Kemp, worked early in her career as a special assistant to the first lady.

After telling Sandra Deal she planned to go to Athens one weekend, she found a raincoat in her chair at work with note that said, “Governor Deal and I checked the weather and we thought you might need this this weekend.”

Sandra Deal wrote so many notes — to staff, friends, and nearly anyone she met on her travels around the state — that her staff began packing boxes of her stationery for her to write notes on trips.

“She would write me a note and I’d say, ‘I’m your staff person, I don’t need a note.’” Bentley said. “But I look back now, and they are treasures.”

Many of the trips were to schools where Deal, a former school teacher, read to children. With literacy as a high-profile focus, she eventually went to all 181 Georgia school systems, reading at up to nine schools in a day.

Along with her school visits, she also expanded the Georgia Children’s Cabinet from its initial focus on foster care to become a monthly working group of the heads of state agencies that had a child-serving mission.

The men and women who worked with her then say they believe her time as first lady not only left Georgia as a better state, but left them as better people.

Chris Riley started with Nathan Deal as an intern on Deal’s 1992 state Senate campaign and rose to work as the governor’s chief of staff.

“She’s taught me so much,” he said. “She’s taught me how to listen. She taught me how to take a more receptive approach, how to try and see the best in everyone, and that everyone has something to offer, no matter who they are.”

Riley visited the Deals at the hospital earlier this year as Mrs. Deal’s cancer worsened. He reminded her and Gov. Deal that they had all been working together — from campaigns to Congress to the governor’s mansion, for exactly 30 years.

“Did you learn anything?” Sandra Deal joked to Riley.

Riled laughed and said, " I learned more than you will ever know.”