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Giving Georgia's first ladies their due
Dick Yarbrough NEW 06062016
Dick Yarbrough writes about Georgia. - photo by File photo

You may have read about the sudden resignation of Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley last week. The "Luv Guv" as he was known in the local media was facing impeachment proceedings for campaign finance violations and allegations of some boy-girl hanky-panky with one of his top aides.

Bentley is the third Alabama governor to resign since the 1990s, following Don Siegelman, convicted on federal felony corruption charges and sentenced to seven years in federal prison in 2006, and Guy Hunt, who was found guilty of theft, conspiracy and ethics violations in 1993. Prosecutors said Hunt took $200,000 from his inaugural account to buy marble showers and a tractor. You can’t make this stuff up.

Bentley, a medical doctor by trade, was divorced by his wife of 50 years after he accidentally sent her a suggestive text message intended for his honey bunny. And you would let this guy take out your appendix?

Somehow, I can’t imagine those kinds of shenanigans taking place among our governors here in Georgia and I am pretty sure it hasn’t for the past 60 years at least. As I ponder the resignations of Bentley, Siegelman and Hunt, I am looking at the wall in my office which contains signed photos of every Georgia governor from Ernest Vandiver (I958-63) to our current chief executive, Nathan Deal. Two names are missing: Lester Maddox (1967-1971) who I never got around to meeting and Jimmy Carter (1971-75) who didn’t make the cut because of his unconscionable racist campaign against my hero, Gov. Carl Sanders (1963-67).

A few of Georgia’s governors I became acquainted with after they had served their time in office. Several I had first-hand contact with as a part of my job. All were different in personality and each had different legislative priorities. Some I agreed with and some I didn’t. But one thing they all had in common: All of the aforementioned governors were and are strong family men. For that, let us be grateful.

And let us give credit where credit is due to Georgia’s first ladies, from Betty Vandiver to Sandra Deal. I can’t think of a job much harder. Not only do you have to keep the household running back home, making sure the bills get paid and the plumbing works but you are also the keeper of the People’s House — the Governor’s Mansion — which you must share with friends and strangers on a regular basis. All the while, you must also endure watching your husband get pilloried by his political opponents and the media in the blood sport known as politics. That can’t be easy, but they have managed well.

But lest you think they just sit around the house playing second fiddle to their husband/governor, our first ladies have made their own impact on our state’s well-being. Betty Vandiver devoted much of her time and energy as first lady to raising public awareness of the needs of Georgia’s mentally ill and developmentally disabled. Her impact is still being felt today.

Sandra Deal, a former public schoolteacher, has made reading proficiency her priority. As part of her "Read Across Georgia" tour, Ms. Deal has visited and read to all 159 counties and 181 school districts and nearly 700 schools to encourage student reading. Shirley Miller has been a strong advocate for adult literacy.

Elizabeth Harris is one of the most gracious people I know who made everyone welcomed at the Governor’s Mansion, including our friends from Scotland who could not believe the First Lady of Georgia would give them a personal tour of the mansion. Speaking of residences, I once found myself residing in Marie Barnes’ doghouse for the slings and arrows I hurled at her husband’s acerbic chief of staff, Bobby Kahn. I think I am out now, but I am afraid to ask. She would tell me.

As previously noted, Gov. Carl Sanders was and always will be my political hero. I am now blessed to have Betty Sanders, one of our state’s outstanding artists, in my life to encourage me in my own nascent efforts as an artist.

So, let us give Georgia’s first ladies their due, shall we? To a person, they have been their husband’s most avid supporter and strongest defender while still making their own mark on our state. The best thing they ever did, however, was to not marry a dingbat doctor or a guy who spent campaign funds to buy marble showers and a tractor. For that, we can all be grateful.

You can reach Yarbrough at

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