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New First Lady to Promote Child Welfare

Tuesday, November 19, 2002  Contact: Office of Communications 404-651-7774


By Skippy Davis
Macon Telegraph Staff Writer

BONAIRE - This weekend, she'll be the mother of the groom, and in less than two months, she'll be Georgia's first lady. Most people would call that a full plate. But Mary Perdue had other things on her mind early Monday.

The sunny morning found her at Houston County's Bonaire Elementary School, reading a story to some lucky first-graders.

The story was "Miss Twiggley's Tree" by Dorothea Warren Fox, and the well-worn book is one from which Perdue has read many times to her own four children, now all grown. It's the tale of a shy woman who loses her timidity and makes many friends when she opens her home to them during a flood.

"I like a story that has a moral," Perdue said. "This one's moral is that people can be different and still be friends."

Perdue and her husband, Gov.-elect Sonny Perdue, have read to schoolchildren on several occasions. And when their own children were small, she read them nightly bedtime stories.

"Sonny used to say, 'Does it have to be every single night?' " she said, smiling at the recollection.

Mary Perdue bears no resemblance to Miss Twiggley. Not in the least shy and certainly no stranger to public life - her husband was a state senator for more than a decade before resigning last year to run for governor - she is self-possessed, intelligent, well-educated and gracious.

"She is fun to work for, and she is a very calming person to be with," said her assistant, Jen Englert.

Once the wedding of the Perdues' elder son, Jim, takes place Saturday, Mary Perdue will turn her attention to the biggest immediate challenge of her new role: Moving from their comfortable rural home of 17 years into the governor's mansion in Atlanta's tony Buckhead.

The move will take place sometime - she isn't sure exactly when - before her husband's Jan. 13 inauguration. While looking forward to being first lady, Perdue also is leaving one particular delight behind.

She will lose the almost daily contact she has enjoyed with her only grandchildren, 3-year-old twins Sunni and Mary Kate Brett. The children are the daughters of the Perdue's elder daughter, Leigh, and her husband, Joey Brett, of Perry.

Twin white high chairs stand side by side near a dining area in the Perdue home. They well may be traveling to the mansion soon, to be ready for twinly visits.

"I've kept the twins since they were born," said their grandma, her candid blue eyes turning wistful for a moment.

But she brightens, mentioning that she and her husband will be closer to their younger daughter, Lara Ghiotto, who lives with her husband, Michael, in Marietta and works as a software consultant in Atlanta.

'Didn't sit on the sidelines'

The importance of children has been a major theme throughout the Perdue's 30-year marriage.

Their younger son, Dan Perdue, a student at Middle Georgia College, said his parents were always deeply involved in their children's lives and kept tabs on their pursuits.

"They always knew what was going on in school and in our personal lives, and if they felt they didn't know, they definitely didn't sit on the sidelines waiting to find out," Dan said.

Besides raising their own children, the couple has served as foster parents to orphaned infants through Covenant Care Services. Mary Perdue, who holds a master's degree in speech therapy from Ohio State University, has worked with children in Houston County schools. The Perdues have led family values classes at their church, Second Baptist Church of Warner Robins.

So it comes as no surprise that Mary Perdue says one of her most important missions as first lady will be the welfare of the state's foster children, children in schools and youths in detention centers.

"It isn't a pretty topic for a lot of people, but children are easily forgotten, easily neglected, and they are some of our most vulnerable citizens," she said.

She is cognizant that as first lady, she will have "a bully pulpit" from which to advocate for the children most at risk. Into the bargain, she hopes her influence will help alleviate crime, illegal drug use and recidivism.

"This is an opportunity, and I want to use the position wisely," she said.

Mary Perdue was born Mary Ruff in New Orleans, the middle child in a brood of five. Her father traveled in sales for DuPont, and the family moved to Nashville, Tenn., and, shortly before Mary entered high school, to Atlanta.

Her mother, a stay-at-home mom during her children's early years, has worked for decades as a typist in several university mathematics departments. At age 80, she drives three day a week across Atlanta to her job in the math department at Georgia Tech.

Mary Perdue says her own chief ambition was to marry and raise a family.

Mary and Sonny Perdue met at the University of Georgia, when she was an undergraduate student and he was in veterinary school. They dated for four years before becoming engaged May 5, 1972, and marrying the following September. From their first date, a blind date, she felt Sonny Perdue was special.

"There was an inner difference that I saw pretty quickly," she said. "It was a strong, an innate sense of right and wrong."

While his election to the governor's chair surprised many and stunned the state's Democrats, Mary Perdue said she had no doubt from the initial days of the campaign that her husband would win.

"Early in the campaign, when 90 people filled a restaurant for an early breakfast meeting in Sandersville, Georgia, not exactly a Republican stronghold, we saw the excitement," she said. "People volunteered to help who had never before been involved in a political campaign. People wrote notes to friends in their Christmas cards for us. That kind of enthusiasm can't be measured by a poll."

And she grins, showing a photo of the twin granddaughters, each wearing a shirt saying, "Make me the next governor's granddaughter."

"The twins were our secret weapons," she said.