Hundreds of friends, family members and political figures gathered Saturday afternoon in the Ramsey Conference Center at Lanier Technical College to celebrate the life of former Georgia first lady Sandra Deal, who died at age 80 on Aug. 23 after a battle with breast cancer that metastasized to her brain.
Deal’s funeral was held in the morning at First Baptist Church of Gainesville, where she was a long-time member, serving as a Sunday school teacher and a prayer group leader.
In tributes during the Celebration of Life memorial, friends and colleagues remembered a woman who was selfless, gregarious and exceptionally generous with her time — and a woman whose impact can be felt all across the state of Georgia.
“For eight years, she was in essence the mother of us all in Georgia,” said Chris Riley, who served as chief of staff for Deal’s husband, Gov. Nathan Deal, throughout his 2011-19 term.
“We’ve had nothing but wonderful first ladies, present and past,” said Phil Wilheit Sr., a Hall County businessman very close to the Deal family. “But Sandra Deal was without question the most welcoming first lady the state has ever had. I've never seen anything like it.”
As first lady, Deal earned a reputation as a tireless advocate of children’s literacy, having read to more than 250,000 students at more than 1,000 schools in all 159 of Georgia’s counties.
“Sandra Deal was a retired school teacher that never actually retired,” said Jim Andrews, retired Georgia State Trooper who served on the Deals’ security team and remained close with the family after office.
Less well known is that she also spent “countless hours” reading to troubled youth in juvenile correction facilities, said Avery Niles, former commissioner for the Department of Juvenile Justice.
Deal was a Gainesville native and a pillar of Hall County. She graduated from East Hall High School and taught for 15 years in the county school system. In 2018, she was honored with the dedication of the Sandra Deal Secret Reading Garden at North Hall Middle School.
Deal is also remembered as a tireless and gifted political campaigner who played a crucial role in helping her husband win the governorship.
“Sandra Deal was one of the best retail politicians there was,” Riley said. “She engaged more at festivals with people and at parades and stops on the trail than I ever imagined.”
Riley said voter outreach technology helped Gov. Deal win office in 2010, but he gave much of the credit to Sandra Deal and her efforts on the campaign trail.
“I will continue to believe that her hard work proved to be successful and demonstrated the raw power of retail politics in Georgia,” he said.
But it was her “servant’s heart” that loved ones remembered most, a phrase taken from a statewide campaign she launched in 2011 called “With a Servant’s Heart,” which highlighted the importance of volunteerism.
Former staff fondly recalled that they could never stay on schedule because Deal would make it a point to talk with everyone before leaving an event — and help clean up afterward.
“Her ability to see good in everyone was a God-given asset,” Riley said. “She always saw the best in you. No matter who you were, where you worked, she had time to take a picture, to talk to you. And if you ever gave a gift of any sort … she took the time each night to write thank you notes back to you. These were not done by staff. They were done by Sandra.”