For more than a decade, a red velvet rope at the base of the staircase leading from the foyer of the Governor's Mansion to the second floor has discouraged ascent by the public.
Ginger Beebe is changing that. The new lady of the house is embracing her role as hostess to the people of Arkansas and mistress of a house they can take pride in. She wants the house — her home for the next four years and possibly eight — to be “open for the people of Arkansas.”
She's moving the rope midway up the curving stairs, so visitors can go onto the balcony and get a nice view of the Grand Hall.
Soon after she moved in on Jan. 9, the day Mike Beebe took the oath of office as governor, the first lady wondered why a big piece of furniture stood on the landing, blocking the French doors to the balcony. As quickly as you can say Open Sesame, the furniture was gone and the balcony spruced up with a new paint job. Beebe seemed genuinely amazed at the rapid response. “When you say ‘I like this,' the house staff [her term for the inmate detail at the mansion] just does it.”
On their first Saturday in the mansion, the governor and first lady took their breakfast on the balcony, which once looked out on the back yard. Now, it extends into the bright, two-story glass atrium that connects the Grand Hall to the rear of the mansion. They drank their coffee at a little table placed there, set with a silver candlelabrum Ginger Beebe brought from home and the official mansion china, read newspapers, drank coffee and listened to the rainstorm pound the glass roof. You can barely get more cozy or homey than that, there in the state's official receiving room.
Ginger Beebe is 5 feet tall, slight and ladylike. Her straight white hair is the color that every woman going gray envies. She smiles a lot. She has a head for details, and is famously organized. Her blue eyes take in everything. She is both self-assured — a manner that derails any patronizing her diminutive size might invite — and self-deprecating. She says Mike Beebe loves her because she's “silly,” but she is by no means silly. But she is playful, and a quick wit.
At a recent luncheon of the Women's Foundation board, of which she is a new member, attendees introduced themselves in order around the table. Candace Martin, the first lady's press liaison, introduced herself. A reporter introduced herself, noting she was writing about Beebe. Then the first lady introduced herself. “I'm Ginger Beebe, and I'm never alone.”
She warms up to strangers quickly, without inviting intimacy; she is too circumspect for that. Asked to pose by the fountain in front of the mansion on a day when its water had frozen into icicle, she gaily mused, “I guess I won't put my feet in the water.” She explained that she'd done just that on a hot day last summer on the campaign trail, joining children at a fountain in Van Buren to dip her dogs in the cooling water.
She and the photographer proceeded to the miniature mansion playhouse in the front yard, where she peered through the windows into the little parlor inside, complete with small chairs, fireplace, rug and dog. Her grandchildren (three girls, two boys) will adore it, she said. She tried to open the little French doors. No luck. She tried a window. She wanted that house open, too.
Beebe got to work on the mansion the minute the couple moved in on Jan. 9. She got the couple's furniture from their Little Rock condo moved in, the leak in the master bedroom fixed, the private rooms painted and installed a dressing table where a closet used to be. In the basement, she removed vinyl wallpaper and found, to her horror, mold behind the paper. That's been corrected, as has mold coming from the air-conditioning unit in the governor's office. She had certain couches and rugs removed because of residue by the previous occupants' pet; she's allergic to dogs. “She wants to know about every aspect of the operation” of the mansion, Mansion Administrator Ron Maxwell said. “She will be a very active, hands-on first lady.”
She gave a reporter a tour of the mansion's private quarters, thinking over the request for a moment before saying, “Well, when I'm home I have people over.” The nice galley kitchen was stocked with peanut butter and jelly for the governor, his dinner after all the hoopla of Jan. 9.
The Beebes bought new furniture for their bedroom, and the first lady says she sleeps well, knowing how secure the mansion is. It was disconcerting, she concedes, the first time she heard the security people checking to make sure everything was turned off in the kitchen at night. Down the hall is a bedroom with twin beds purchased for the mansion the year it was built (1966), spiffed up with bright new silky patchwork bedspreads the first lady is proud to say she bought at J.C. Penney. In the third bedroom across the hall, she's trying out window treatments to provide the front-facing room a little more privacy.
The first family's sitting room, its windows tucked under the glass-ceilinged atrium, is furnished with the Beebes' own comfortable chairs, sofas, lamps and knicknacks. (Her German shepherd, Mosel, lives outdoors; his first night at the mansion he slept on the front porch.) It's been stripped of wallpaper and painted a soft café au lait color. A small book, Max Lucado's “Grace for the Moment,” is on the bookshelf. The first lady has referred to the book of inspirational writings so often she's memorized it and put it up.
She is making it her first priority to make the mansion a home for the governor to retreat to after his long days at the Capitol.
Ginger Beebe loves Mike Beebe, her husband of 27 years, people around her say. “How could I not?” she says. “I love him because of where his heart is. He truly cares about people. He hasn't forgotten where he came from.”
How does she feel about being thrust in the public spotlight? “Happy,” she said. “I might not have chosen this, but I knew it was right.” Her husband, she said, “is the right man [for the job]. He can do so much.”
Ginger Beebe was born in Little Rock but was adopted at the age of 4 by Buell and Virginia Croom of Searcy, both now deceased. She doesn't remember much about her life previous to her adoption. Buell Croom owned an AMOCO plant and supplied oil to service stations, she said. “I never wanted for anything,” Beebe said, but the family was not wealthy. “My mother sewed,” she said, and made her clothes for school, and unlike most girls who've been sent off wearing their mother's creations, Beebe said she was “proud to be seen” in her homemade dresses.
What did she want to be when she grew up? “I really thought I would be taller,” she said unselfconsciously. She loves to dance, and at one point thought about being a Radio City Rockette. She later decided she might want to be a homemaker, and claims she was the only person in her high school to take two years of home economics.
After high school, she attended the University of Central Arkansas and then transferred to Arkansas State University, but did not graduate. She married, had two children and divorced. She met Mike Beebe when she was involved in the Jaycettes, and in 1979 they married.
Three years after they married, Mike Beebe made his first campaign for Senate. He won and stayed in the state legislature for 20 years, and then became attorney general. Ginger Beebe, who has an avid newspaper habit she said she picked up from her father, said if she had any influence on Beebe's legislating, it might have been on women's and children's issues.
As Gov. Beebe's tenure evolves, Jean Ann Bell, whose husband Watson Bell is Beebe's former law partner, said, “Everyone will see that she will be someone that will get right in and work and be involved in helping Arkansas. I think they're going to do great things for Arkansas. I know their work ethic.”
The first lady is more than a homemaker. She's made a career of volunteer work; her resume, stretching back 30 years, is impressive. A friend from Searcy, Judy Donovan, said that “to volunteer at the level she does is really a sacrifice.”
She was a founding member of CARTI (Central Arkansas Radiation Therapy Institute) in Searcy, its first satellite outside Little Rock. She is on the Committee of 100, the women's organization that supports the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View. She was on the board of the Performing Arts Center on the Square in Searcy for five years, presided over the women's social service group Beta Sigma Phi for a decade. She volunteered at White County Medical Center, was on the board of the White County Rape Crisis center, helped at her children's schools, acted as treasurer for her Episcopal Church Women's group. And so on. She is a master gardener — a skill that is sure to complement nicely the $1.7 million redo of the mansion grounds that's under way.
“She is very organized, very meticulous. If she says she will do something, she'll do it on time and better than anyone else,” Donovan said. Beebe chalks up her many requests for help to the fact that “I don't mind asking for money.”
And, people close to her say, she doesn't take no for an answer. Told that, she knits her eyebrows. It's a compliment, a testament to her tenacity, but she thinks a moment. “Sometimes no is the right answer,” she said. She's not pushy.
She's taking her time — she says getting the mansion in order comes first — but Beebe is giving some thought to how to use her new high profile to promote good causes.
One issue dear to her heart is treatment for mental illness. In October, Beebe's son-in-law, Anthony Taylor, committed suicide. (His wife, Tammy, is Mrs. Beebe's daughter from her previous marriage.) Taylor suffered from bipolar disorder, the first lady said. Could stronger mental health care have helped him? “It's hard to say,” she mused. “I would hope so.”
It was not the Beebes' first painful experience with suicide. The godfather of Kyle Beebe, the son of the governor and first lady, killed himself because of an illness. Robert Elliott was a radiologist and instrumental in getting CARTI to locate in Searcy. “He was a good Christian man,” Beebe said. His family has started the Robert Elliott Foundation to educate people about depression.
Understanding mental illness as a health problem and not a character flaw, as well as providing adequate opportunities for treatment in Arkansas, “is something we need to take more interest in,” the first lady said. “It doesn't mean that you're bad.”
At the Women's Foundation meeting, the first lady asked only one question. Has the foundation extended its Girls of Promise program to encourage participation in the sciences to any schools in South Arkansas? The answer was no, that an initial effort had not been successful.
Afterward, she talked to a reporter about the need to give those girls in the Delta and South Arkansas the help they need to recognize and reach their potential. Then, quickly, she said, “And I won't take no for an answer.”
She signed up for four committees for the foundation.
Bell, now the director of communication for the Searcy public schools, grew up with Ginger Beebe and is currently on a committee with her planning their 40th high school reunion. In junior high, Bell said, she and the lady both twirled batons and played in the band — Beebe the flute and Bell the French horn. When the Searcy High School band came to Little Rock for the inauguration festivities, the first lady was spotted sitting in the flute section (observing).
The future booster for the dinner theater on the square was in drama class in high school, even directed a student play. In later years, when Kyle Beebe played football for Searcy High, the first lady and the other mothers on the “mom squad,” Bell said, created a cheer and did a pyramid. Ginger Beebe, who might weigh as much as 100 pounds, was on the top of the pyramid.
“When she's a friend, she's really a friend,” Bell said. Many years ago, when Bell was called to Memphis for a liver transplant, Ginger Beebe went to her home to help Bell's children and mother-in-law. “She was quietly going about tasks that needed to be done, in the laundry room taking care of the laundry ...”
Beebe's day starts early. “Mike's out by 6:30 a.m.,” she said, and people start arriving at the house by 7 a.m. Before she tackles her chores, the first lady begins the morning reading her devotional books and in prayer. She maintained her routine even while campaigning, she said, keeping “Grace for the Moment” in her purse. “It keeps me grounded,” she said. She's happy pondering God's grace, she said, given “whether we deserve it or not.”
Ginger Beebe does not wear her religion on her sleeve, her friends note, but her faith is important to her. Judy Donovan calls on Ginger Beebe when she needs someone to pray for her. “She doesn't ask why or for how long, and I hope I'm the same to her,” she said.