Inside the private residential area of the mansion / Will Sterling
One first notices her infectious laughter and bright eyes as First Lady Deborah Bryant emerges from the elevator at the Governor’s Mansion. She greets her guests enthusiastically. Within moments of a first meeting, one could describe this first lady as bubbly.
It is a blustery and bright, unseasonably warm afternoon in December, a perfect day for a chat in one of the gazebos that flank the mansion. Grounds crewmen, however, scurry about with leaf blowers while others busily hang Christmas decorations, so instead Mrs. Bryant leads her visitors into the private residential area of the mansion.
This month marks the first anniversary of Phil Bryant’s governorship and of Mrs. Bryant’s new role as first lady. When asked how she first adapted, she responded candidly, “It was tough. I was not used to being in the public eye, and it took a while to become completely comfortable. Phil and I talked about it a lot, and he said, ‘Deborah, just think of all the good you can do for the people of this state. You will meet so many people, and there will be so many opportunities to help others.’
“I realized that I could let my discomfort defeat me, or I could embrace this position, and I decided to embrace it.”
Mrs. Bryant has, indeed, wrapped her arms all the way around her new post.
After she was more at ease with her new job, she wanted to accept as many invitations to visit and speak that she could. Over the course of the year, though, she has defined her issues and goals for her tenure as Mississippi’s first lady, and Mrs. Bryant uses the acronym HOME to reflect her platform:
In the healthcare realm, Bryant promotes a healthy lifestyle among teens with a focus on the problem of Mississippi’s teenage pregnancy rate, which is the highest in the nation. This has become a critical issue for the governor, as well as Mrs. Bryant. She is the honorary chair of the Governor’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Task Force, and she facilitated the first meeting through the Department of Human Services, during which community leaders, business owners, educators, students and the like, gathered to discuss the problem of teen pregnancy and the impact it has on the state.
Additionally, as she lives a life of faith, she is working with faith-based organizations, like the Salvation Army and their “Why Wait?” program, which promotes abstinence. Through this effort, Mrs. Bryant has spoken to youngsters between the ages of 8 and 19 about self-esteem issues, the importance of good communication between youngsters and their parents; peer-to-peer education and healthy relationships between boys and girls.
She also supports Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children, having made several visits to meet sick and injured children, along with their parents. “I am dedicated to these children. Phil and I regularly remember them in our prayers, and I just have to say that visiting these youngsters does my heart good,” she says.
Because her mother is a two-time breast cancer survivor, Bryant is also very active in the fight against the disease. She is serving as the 2012-2013 honorary chair of the Susan G. Komen Central Mississippi Race for the Cure, which will be held Saturday, April 13, in downtown Jackson.
The outdoors has always held great appeal for the first lady. “My grandmother lived on a farm 15 miles out from Hazlehurst. It’s still in our family, and I just love to be there. When I was young, I loved going to get the fresh eggs from the chicken house,” she says.
These days, Bryant likes to promote the outdoors to her fellow Mississippians. A long-time hiker, she visits “our beautiful state parks.” On her trips across the state, she frequently visits schools and loves to take some of the children outside to play, to move and to breathe in the fresh air. It is her desire for all Mississippians to enjoy and appreciate the wealth of natural beauty God has given us. She thinks of the outdoors as a place where families can work and play together, thereby strengthening family ties.
The renovation and preservation of the Governor’s Mansion has been one of Mrs. Bryant’s major projects. “This is the second oldest occupied Governor’s Mansion in the country, and it needed some help. Phil was inaugurated in January [of 2012], but we didn’t move into the mansion until May because we had a lot of repair work to do leaky windows, repairs to ductwork and the heating and air conditioning system, that sort of thing,” Mrs. Bryant explains.
Fortunately, her 26-year-old son Patrick is an interior designer at a downtown architectural firm and is leading the effort. He has chosen an ethereal paint palette and complementary fabrics that work well with the natural light that enters the private residence. Walking into a sitting room, one is taken by the play of the late afternoon sunlight filtered by the trees and open Venetian blinds. It is calm and soothing.
She believes that the mansion is the people’s home. “We open the mansion for events and encourage Mississippians, as well other people from around the United States and other countries, to visit.”
One of her favorite things to do is to give tours of the mansion. “I grew up in West Jackson, and I always wondered what was behind the door, and I know others do, too. I will practically drag people in off the streets.” Case in point: At the recent Christmas parade, she stood in the lawn and saw a little girl looking at her. Bryant approached her, and the little girl asked her about the house. Bryant explained that she lives in it, and the young girl asked to see it. Mrs. Bryant directed the little girl and her family to the gates and gave them a complete tour, and she has given many tours of the mansion this way.
Various furniture companies donated all of the furniture in the private residence, and the Bryants will have the option of purchasing it when the time to depart the mansion arrives.
Son Patrick says, “She is a tough client; she is in charge, and she has her own style, but she’s been good. I do sometimes have to say, ‘Trust me.’”
The educational component of her HOME acronym has a focus in early childhood education. Mrs. Bryant frequently visits schools, speaking to the children, as well as reading to them.
In 1974, Deborah Hays was 19 and working toward an Associate of Science degree in medical records from Hinds Community College, when she met Phil Bryant. A mutual friend, who was a colleague of Phil’s at Zales Jewelers at the Jackson Mall, invited her to meet them at Pizza Hut. Though it wasn’t quite love at first sight, she says, “There was an attraction. Phil later saw me at HCC and followed me to class. A little bit after that, he called and asked me out. Our first date was to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
A romance bloomed, they married when Deborah was 21, and this past New Year’s Eve, Gov. and Mrs. Bryant celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary. Besides Patrick, they have a daughter, Katie, who is 28 and practices law with a firm in Madison. Within this past year, they added Stephen Snell as son-in-law this past April.
For 38 years, Bryant has used her degree from HCC at St. Dominic Hospital, and she continues to work there two days a week in quality and performance improvement, working with the chairmen and chiefs of the various medical staff departments and services.
Throughout their marriage, she and the governor have worked to maintain a close-knit family and to build one of their own. “I have four brothers and sisters, and we are very close. Twice a year, we all gather at the farm outside Hazlehurst for workdays - and that includes cousins and their children, so it’s a big group. We have the best time, too.”
She continues, “Because of the closeness I have with my family, and the closeness Phil has with his family, we knew no other way of family life. When the children were younger, Friday was always movie night at the house, and now, Sunday is still our family time.” She pauses. “We really like our time together.”
She reflects, “I do believe that one of the secrets to being a close family is to spend time with your children. Know what’s going on in their world. We went on walks and hikes together out in the country and had a lot of fun together. We still stay very involved with one another.” In fact, Patrick lives with them in the mansion today.
On living in the Governor’s Mansion, the “People’s Mansion,” as Mrs. Bryant likes to call it, she says it is beginning to feel like home. “At first, it felt like we were camping out here, and it felt like we were living above the store, but now that we’ve made progress with the mansion’s renovation, it is becoming home. The only thing we really lack is art, so I’ve been looking for art by Mississippi artists,” she said.
“It took awhile to become accustomed to having someone in the house all the time, but we’ve just embraced our security people as if they are family and invite them to share a movie with us,” she said, laughing.
Not only are they frequent movie-watchers, and as Mrs. Bryant says, “Phil is old-fashioned and likes old movies. He also wants to watch certain movies at certain times of the year. Around St. Patrick’s Day, we watch The Quiet Man with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. The story takes place in Ireland. Around Halloween, we watch Young Frankenstein, and in December, we watch Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life.
With her duties as first lady, a very busy husband and a part-time job, Bryant takes care of herself. They have installed exercise equipment in the mansion, so she exercises in the residence. She eats healthy food like chicken, fresh fruit and salads, gets enough rest, and she says, “I take it one day at a time.”
Deborah Bryant seems to have an endless supply of energy. She says, “It’s all good. God is good, and I’ve learned that you simply treat others as you want to be treated, and all is well with the world.”