By THOMAS HARTWELL
KENNESAW, Ga. — First Lady Sandra Deal and former First Lady Marie Barnes visited Kennesaw State University Wednesday and shared their accounts of life at the Governor’s mansion as told in the book, “Memories of the Mansion: The Story of Georgia’s Governor’s Mansion.” The two First Ladies were joined on the panel of speakers by co-authors and KSU professors Catherine Lewis and Jennifer Dickey. Lewis and Dickey also served as moderators and shared their own accounts of experiences at the mansion while they were writing the book.
First Lady Deal, also a co-author, concisely stated her initial intentions for the history of the mansion.
“I said when I met Ms. Catherine, ‘Now, first rule: not political,’” said Deal.
Deal explained that she had many questions when she moved in to the mansion about the seven previous families who lived there. There was plenty of information readily available about the politics surrounding the estate, she said, but no family stories, no record of weddings, no personal family stories.
“So I thought, ‘I’ll invite all the First Ladies and their husbands, and I’ll pick their brains,’” Deal said. “So I invited them to dinner to see what I could find out – what they knew about the mansion. … Most of them came, but they had so much fun telling stories … we didn’t learn a thing – not about the mansion.”
It was this exchange of stories that sparked Deal’s deeper interest in the stories of the people of the mansion – and there were no shortage of stories.
Barnes told a story that showed both the real-life stresses of the job of the governor and the “real” home-life in the mansion – a story that Lewis called the “Scooby-Doo story.”
Gov. Roy Barnes was looking to cut $50 million from the budget, while she was looking to fund a hospital practice of testing newborns’ hearing on a regular basis – a $2.5 million endeavor, said First Lady Barnes. When she brought the idea to the governor, he was, of course, skeptical of the cost, but, said the First Lady, there were ways of persuading him.
“I have these moving figures, and two of them had been in the study and one of them was of Scooby-Doo,” said Barnes. “And they’d go ‘jingle-bell, jingle-bell, jingle-bell rock,’ over and over ad nauseam. Well, I hit the button and turn them on and walk out of the room and about 15 minutes later, Roy says, ‘Marie! Get in here and turn these things off!’ So I went in there, and I said, ‘You found my $2.5 million yet?’”
Needless to say, said Barnes, the $2.5 million stayed in the budget.
Deal and Barnes told stories of celebrity and dignitary visitors, pranks played by the state troopers assigned to the mansion, mansion renovations and celebrations that took place while they lived there. Stories of these families and others ranged from Nathan Deal and his wife buying lingerie to avoid the embarrassment of having their assigned trooper do it, to George Busbee and his wife having a Playboy Bunny crash a party they were hosting for Burt Reynolds, to the Sonny Perdue and his wife accidentally inviting the wrong Bill Elliott to dinner (the invitation was accepted).
While much of the time at the mansion was memorable for the positive experiences, said the First Ladies, there were times when it was a challenge to just keep the state moving. For instance, Roy and Marie Barnes were the family living at the mansion during the 2001 World Trade Center attacks.
“That was the worst period of time that I have ever lived through,” recalled Barnes. “[Governor Barnes] felt it very important that the state not close, so that we would show strength and we would show calmness to the people of Georgia, because we didn’t know what was coming next.”
During their stay at the mansion, Lewis said, the most powerful artifact found was simply a sticky note on a brochure for an event to be held at the mansion on Sept. 11th – the note read, “WTC, event canceled.”
It is all of the stories and all of this history, said Deal, that needed to be brought to the forefront of the mansion’s existence, and without the writing of “Memories of the Mansion,” this would not have happened.
“I just wanted us to capture this history, because we’d already lost two governors and now we’ve lost Governor Sanders,” said Deal. “I felt like if we didn’t capture these stories, then they’d be lost forever … I’m just so grateful to Catherine and Jennifer for doing the hard work of pulling all of the information together. … And I’m grateful to the families – to Marie —and to all the other families who helped and were so gracious to give us information, because this is important. You can’t imagine how much this really meant to the governors and their wives to have their stories told.”