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First ladies reminisce about time in Governor's Mansion
Taste of History luncheon sponsored by Northeast Ga. History Center
Brent Cochrane entertains guests with a rendition of “Georgia On My Mind” on Thursday at the First Baptist Church in Gainesville during a fundraiser for the Northeast Georgia History Center. - photo by Michelle Boaen Jameson

Some people might expect life in the Governor’s Mansion to be stuffy or formal, but Georgia’s first ladies say it was filled with laughter and family.

Former Georgia first ladies Betty Vandiver and Marie Barnes and current first lady Sandra Deal attended the 2014 Taste of History Luncheon hosted by the Northeast Georgia History Center on Thursday. The three women shared stories about life as first lady.

Marie Barnes and her husband, former Gov. Roy Barnes, lived in the mansion during his term of office from 1999 to 2003.

“It’s the second largest in the country,” Barnes said of the Governor’s Mansion. “It’s really a fabulous place.”

Deal remarked on the quality of the furnishings, and said former first lady Betty Sanders put a lot of thought into how to furnish the mansion for future generations.

Former first lady Shirley Miller, who lived in the mansion with her husband, Zell, from 1991 to 1999, could not attend the luncheon, but she sent along a video with a few remarks.

“Being the governor’s wife is a great honor and a privilege, and certainly having a short lease on the people’s house is a wonderful experience,” Miller said. “I was very, very fortunate to have it.”

Vandiver had a slightly different experience as Georgia’s first lady. Her husband, Ernest, was governor from 1959 to 1963, and the mansion opened five years later in 1968.

“There was no staff,” Vandiver said of life in the prior governor’s home. “That’s why I envy these ladies.”

According to Vandiver, a prisoner was brought every morning to cook them breakfast and clean up around their home. They also had three state patrolmen who lived in their garage for security.

“They were my best friends,” said Vandiver’s daughter Jane Kidd. “I was 5, 6, 7 and 8 and I came home from school to see the state patrolmen. I would show them my report card after school.”

The Vandiver children had a very normal life, Kidd said. Their mother drove them to school every day and every afternoon they would ride their bikes around Atlanta.

“We really had a free and open childhood,” she said.

Barnes said her children were young adults when she and her husband lived in the Governor’s Mansion. Her two daughters were in college and her son, the oldest, was working. He moved into the mansion with his parents to be able to spend more time with them.

Barnes said her son went out with a friend one night and forgot to take a cellphone, so he was locked out.

“He scaled the gate,” Barnes said. “But he got up to the garage area and evidently somebody was outside doing rounds and saw him.”

Two state troopers met him with guns drawn, she said.

“At least we know the governor’s mansion is safe,” Barnes joked. “The White House may not be, but the mansion is.”

Life in the mansion wasn’t always easy, however.

“The longest night that I spent at the Governor’s Mansion was the night of the Olympic bombing,” Miller said in the video. “Within minutes, Zell was gone. We didn’t know whether it was a single event or whether something was going to happen somewhere else.”

Barnes was first lady at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. She said they were stepping off a plane when the pilot came to give them the news.

Deal said Sept. 11 changed life for Georgia’s first family. Since then, security has been tightened and the first family rarely drives anywhere on its own.

The Governor’s Mansion will be open for Christmas tours again this year, Deal said. The tree lighting ceremony will be Dec. 7, and tours will begin the next day.

“It’s the house that belongs to the people,” Deal said. “So it’s such a joy to me to let them see what they own that’s such a treasure and is preserving so much of our history.”

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