November 2007 Issue
At Home With the Stricklands
Ohio's governor and first lady adjust to life in the Governor's Residence.
Ted and Frances Strickland's new digs couldn't be more different from their previous living quarters.
For almost four years before Ted Strickland was sworn in as Ohio's 68th governor, the couple lived in a modest condominium near Port Columbus International Airport. In January, they moved into the official Governor's Residence, a sprawling Jacobethan mansion in the elegant older Columbus suburbs of Bexley. The stately home, set on acres of lavish grounds, is the setting for the Stricklands' very public and fast-paced new life and routine.
As a congressman for 12 years, Ted Strickland divided his time between his district (which stretched 330 miles from Lebanon to Marietta), and Washington, D.C., flying in and out of the Columbus airport every week.
“We found out during the campaign, while he was running for Congress … that I would see him more if I lived next to the airport here in Columbus than if I lived anywhere along that 330 miles up and down the river,” Frances Strickland says.
While contemplating running for governor, the congressman sought advice from former governor Richard Celeste, who told him “life would be more normal for me if I was governor ... because when you’re in Congress, if you have a competitive district, it’s necessary to go back and forth every weekend.
“This is a more predictable place in terms of knowing where you’re going to be from one night to the next,” he adds.
And, of course, the Governor’s Residence — completed in 1925 by Columbus architect Robert Gilmore Hanford to resemble the great 17th-century houses of England — is not a bad place to set down some roots. “[Former first lady Hope Taft] said it took her and the governor about a year to get used to this place … It took Ted and me about five minutes,” Frances Strickland says with a laugh.
The mansion was originally built as a private residence for Malcolm D. Jeffrey, son of industrialist Joseph A. Jeffrey. In 1955, the family gave it to the state of Ohio, to be used as the official Governor’s Residence.
“It’s a beautiful old home, but it’s an old home, and I think that makes it warm and homey,” the governor says. “It’s a public place. People come here often for tours and to visit us and we like that.”
Nearly 10,000 visitors a year tour the residence. On a late July morning, the Stricklands talk excitedly about an upcoming party they are hosting for their neighbors later in the week. “There are a lot of people who live around here, who, perhaps, have never actually been in the house. They jog by it or drive by it, and they may not know what it’s like on the inside,” the governor explains.
Frances Strickland speaks in a soft Southern drawl (she grew up on a dairy farm in Simpsonville, Kentucky), and is quick to offer visitors a cup of hot cocoa as they pass through the mansion’s wide front door arch and into the foyer. Governor Strickland is quick with a joke, and, at times, disarmingly honest and down to earth.
“The one big change for me in this job, and I have mixed feelings about it, is the constant presence of people who are protecting us — the security folks,” he confides. “They are wonderful people. In fact, they’ve sort of become part of our family, and they’re a delight and they’re loyal and they’re wonderful and we love them, but sometimes you just don’t want anyone around, you know? And you don’t want to feel like you’re being watched.”
He cites as an example one afternoon at work in the Statehouse. “I spontaneously had a hunger pang and wanted to go downstairs to the little coffee shop and get a sandwich,” he explains. “I didn’t think about telling the security that I was leaving, so I’m down there, and, all of a sudden they came running in. It was like I was a [child] who had misbehaved in my playpen!”
He introduces a state trooper who confirms the story. “He’s worse than a kid,” the trooper adds with a laugh, as the governor looks on, grinning.
The governor has come a long way from his childhood on Duck Run Road in Lucasville, Ohio, where he was born on August 4, 1941, the eighth of nine children, to a steelworker father and a stay-at-home mother. Money was tight, but faith, spirituality and perseverance kept the family unit strong.
“Frances is a farm girl, and I grew up milking cows, with my hands, as a matter of fact,” the governor says. “I think people sometimes assume that because you’re in an office, or live in this house, that your life is more interesting or elegant, or whatever, and the truth is that in most ways, life has not changed for us at all.”
The governor’s home is on the National Register of Historic Places, and as such, must retain its Jacobethan style. Though little can be done to alter the architectural structure of the building, the Stricklands are doing everything they can, in terms of decorating, to make it feel more like home.
The first change Frances Strickland made was to the foyer, a grand entry room with curved arches, exposed beams, slate floors, oriental rugs and dark woodwork. She decided to paint its pristine white walls a deep forest green — a color that for her evokes memories of backpacking trips in old-growth forests.
“I always had a sense of strength, but peacefulness and security, when I would step into [an] old-growth forest, which I was trying to recreate in [the foyer],” she explains. “I’ve always liked contrast, and one of the first things I noticed was that the limestone door faces just seemed to blend into the [white] walls. They almost had a concrete look to them. But with color, it pops them out and they actually look like the art that they are ... I know that not everybody likes the dark colors, but that’s what it’s all about, the personalities of the families that are here.”
She is also working with the Ohio Arts Council to line the walls of the residence with art from Ohio artists — exhibitions rotate every four to six months.
One of her favorite paintings, a portrait of Columbus artist Elijah Pierce by Charles Little hangs on a dark wood paneled wall in the northwest corner of the living room; it is on loan from the Ohio Historical Society.
Directly across from the painting, near the home’s piano, sits Frances Strickland’s beloved guitar, which she used to entertain audiences on her husband’s campaign stops. She takes a seat on the piano bench and playfully launches into an abbreviated version of “Rocky Top.”
The living room is becoming her favorite room in the home, she says, adding that the Friends of the Ohio Governor’s Residence and Heritage Garden — a nonprofit organization formed last year to support the residence and its expansive gardens — is working to raise money to replace some of the furniture in the room, which has become worn with use.
“This house is like a life [that must] accommodate the changing personalities that come in here. Most homes don’t have to deal with somebody new every four to eight years,” she says.
One of the first major decisions the Stricklands had to make, in terms of the residence, came about shortly after they moved in. Longtime chef June McCarthy, who cooked meals for the Voinovich and Taft families, decided to retire. Should they hire a new chef? They decided not to.
“We’re trying to set an example,” the governor says. “I’ve asked my state agencies to do everything they can to look for ways to save money, because the state has a very austere budget.” Instead of a chef, prison inmates from a local prison’s culinary arts program prepare meals for the family, as well as tend the yard and gardens.
“They’ve just been so good in terms of the work they do here and the food they prepare and serve,” the governor says. “It gives them the opportunity to show what they can do in terms of their cooking skills and their ability to serve and wait a table. Quite frankly, those are very valuable skills when you’re out trying to get a job.”
Occasionally, on Sundays, the governor will prepare breakfast for his wife. “The only meal I ever cook, if you could call it a meal, is eggs, bacon and occasionally fried potatoes. Sometimes grits, coffee … toast and butter and jelly,” he says.
Ohio’s first couple, however, rarely has a day or a morning off — even on weekends. And the schedule — early mornings, late evenings, the constant presence of other people — can take its toll. Downtime is a rare commodity, and the governor and first lady relish rare moments of quiet in their lives.
Frances Strickland rises early most mornings and takes a walk, then has breakfast, which is served in a nook off to the side of the home’s spacious kitchen, or, sometimes, in the garden room. Most of their talking, they say, is done in the morning, when they are fresh. Evenings are reserved for activities such as reading or watching television.
“Frances sits up there in her office in front of the computer for sometimes hours at a time, answering e-mails,” the governor says. “I just don’t know how she does it … When I’m here, sometimes I just walk around [downstairs in the residence], because, especially in the evening, it’s just so peaceful and restful. You have all this space and there’s no noise and no one around … But most of the time, I’m on the couch or in a chair, reading a newspaper or … watching Fox News.”
He pauses, waiting for a response, and then laughs heartily.
“I watch Fox News and scream and answer back and tell them they’re wrong.”
“This may give you a little clue as to why I’m on the computer instead of sitting next to him,” the first lady adds with a laugh.
The Stricklands met at the University of Kentucky in 1974 — both were working toward doctoral degrees in psychology and, as teaching assistants, they shared a small office. They married in 1987, when they were both 46, and their careers were well under way.
The governor previously worked as a counseling psychologist at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, an administrator at a Methodist children’s home and an assistant psychology professor at Shawnee State University, in Portsmouth. The first lady, who worked as an educational psychologist, has authored a widely used screening test for kindergarten-age children.
A psychology career might seem an unlikely segue into politics, but the Stricklands say their training has prepared them well for a career in the public eye.
“If you didn’t find people interesting, these would be miserable positions to be in, because we both find ourselves with people constantly. Sometimes one or two people, oftentimes scores of people. Being [psychologists] … it just enables us to understand and to relate to people, perhaps in ways that we wouldn’t be able to if we hadn’t had that background,” the governor says.
“People frequently say to me, ‘You’re a good listener,’ and I say to them, ‘You know, I spent a lot of money learning how to do that,’” he adds with a chuckle. “I went through years of graduate school, basically, to learn how to listen and to understand what people were trying to say to me.”
The back yard of the Governor’s Residence is home to more than three acres of gardens, featuring an herb garden, vegetable garden, cranberry bog, berry garden, orchard, wildflowers, perennials, wild rice, a rose garden and an Appalachian garden (with limestone and sandstone rock formations) — all tended by horticulturalist Rick Stanforth. In 2001, former first lady Hope Taft, a gardening enthusiast, created a heritage garden to showcase Ohio’s natural history and environment through the plants that inhabit all five regions of the state. Frances Strickland has asked the former first lady to head the Friends of the Governor’s Residence garden committee, to ensure that her pet project continues to thrive.
“I keep Hope close at hand,” she says. “Whenever anybody comes and asks me about the garden, I make sure she’s here.”
The Stricklands have also added their own touch to the gardens in the form of an agricultural garden, which includes corn, soybeans and squash. These plants are native to Ohio and can be used to help create fuel alternatives, like ethanol and soy biodiesel.
“Anything that we add or repair here, we try to do it with the latest green strategies,” Frances Strickland says. “And part of what Hope started, and we’re trying to continue, is using the residence as an educational voice for young people when they come through.”
Before the Stricklands moved into the residence, Bob and Hope Taft left them with hard-won words of wisdom. “Go slow and choose carefully,” Hope Taft told the incoming first lady.
Governor Taft’s advice to the future Governor Strickland: “Get exercise.” He’s trying.
“I keep saying, and I even put on the schedule, that I’m going to exercise,” the governor says with a sigh. “I probably have done that in the last month six or eight times. Rather than put exercise on the schedule, we put ‘issue briefing.’ But every time it’s been time for an ‘issue briefing,’ something has come up, and I’ve been unable to do it ... But I hope to do better.”