First Ladies Club

Three women who’ve worn the title of First Lady of Iowa shared a microphone this week at the dedication of an exhibit about Iowa’s 43 First Ladies.  Former First Ladies Billie Ray and Chris Branstad, along with current First Lady Christie Vilsack, also talked about how they balanced the roles of wife, mother and First Lady.  Mrs. Vislack mentioned the decisions that face Iowa’s next Frist Lady as the wives of both candidates have jobs — Mari Culver is a lawyer; Karen Nussle is a college professor. 

The three women were each asked to talk about how they viewed their roles as wife, mother and First Lady and their responses follow:

Billie Ray:  "I set priorities and the children were first so if they had a swim meet or some function at school, that’s where I went and if we had a function for governors and other people and the children were invited, I gave them their choice and I remember once I said ‘You can go if you want to.’  I think we had a celebrity there — Glenn Campbell or somebody, you guys wouldn’t know about that."

Christie Vilsack: "Yes we would."

Ray:  "They said ‘Well, what do we have to wear?’  One of them wanted to wear tennis shoes and somebody wanted to wear something else and I said ‘Well, you either wear your nice clothes or you don’t go’ and they said ‘Okay, we won’t go.’  They didn’t go. I didn’t make them go anyplace that I thought they’d fell uncomfortable and I went nearly always with Bob if I could but I said the girls came first and if they had some function then I stayed for that but that didn’t happen too often because most of the things were in the daytime."

Chris Branstad:  "Well, the good part about Terrace Hill is you have your privacy on the third floor, if I could keep them from coming down and surprising tourists and guests for parties that was usually pretty good.  I don’t know, when we moved in here that was my first goal was to make sure that my children grew up normal.  I didn’t want them to think they were special or that people should treat them differently from anybody else so I mean I drove car pool but like Billie our kids were our first priority.  At least my children, being so young, that’s the way it had to be and of course as they got older it got a little bit easier but it was quite a balance and then you know you had your evening events and then once I went to work, oh, everything really changed because I had to work all day, come home, ususally do an event (at Terrace Hill) and then the kids usually had their things going on but you just kind of had to juggle your life to please everyone, but it worked out."

Christie Vilsack:  "Imagine the Family Circus, you know that cartoon, where you see the kids sometimes taking all those circuitous routes.  Imagine $16 million worth of antiques in the house between you and going outside to play, so that’s a challenge."

Chris Branstad: "That was always a worry, especially with my children."

Christie Vilsack:  "Well, they were young."

Chris Branstad:  "Yes, they were."

Christie Vislack:  "Very definitely.  First of all, I found the answer to empty nest.  You know, Doug was a senior in high school when we came here and I literally left him at home in Mount Pleasant with family and friends and came to Des Moines and went back and forth between the two places for that first semester but I found the answer to empty nest syndrome and that is I left my empty nest and started a whole new life here and the empty nest is still sitting there but I didn’t have to deal with that because there was so much going on.  Our children have been here.  We spend our holidays in Mount Pleasant.  They’ve been here a few times, on and off, but they haven’t really lived here so it freed me up, as someone who has had a career for 25 years, it freed me up to make that decision.  I had to decide whether I would leave my career, which I did, to volunteer for eight years but I always tell,. when people say, ‘Well, what do First Ladies do anyway?’ I say ‘We do anything we want because we’re not elected and we’re not paid’ and that’s very, very true and I will defend, and I’m sure these two will as well, the choice that the next First Lady makes, whatever those choices are, we will defend them because we’ve all found ourselves here in different circumstances.  When you marry these men, you don’t know ahead of time they’re going to be governors and you’re going to be thrust into the spotlight and it’s easier for some of us than others but I have watched women at the national level.  We all grow in the job.  You can’t help but grow in the job, but at the same time everybody has to have the freedom because First Ladies don’t really choose the job and so I think we’ll be supportive of whatever the choices are that the next First Lady makes as well."

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.