At home in the Governor's Mansion

by Sonja J. Keith

The Governor’s Mansion has a rich history in Arkansas and two new residents – Gov. Asa and Susan Hutchinson – are happy to now call it home.

During the months of crisscrossing the state while campaigning, Mrs. Hutchinson said they were constantly living out of suitcase with an overnight bag partially packed all of the time. Since taking office and moving into the Governor’s Mansion, things have slowed down a little. With the state Legislature in session, the two haven’t been able to make many trips out to the four corners of the state, giving them an opportunity to settle in.

“We still have a few boxes to unpack and then it’s a matter of curtains and painting but everybody is really helpful and accommodating. Friends have helped out with unpacking,” said Mrs. Hutchinson. “Friends and family have given me advice on decorating. It’s all coming together.”

Mrs. Hutchinson is enjoying living in Little Rock, and sees a lot of similarities to her hometown of Atlanta. “The climate, people, the hospitality, Southern gentility, the community, the arts, the music, the symphony, the theatre – it’s really neat.”

Growing up “as blue-collar as you can get” as the second of seven children, Mrs. Hutchinson was the valedictorian of Fulton High School with plans on being a doctor once she attended college at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, where she and her future husband and governor of Arkansas met.

“It was our final semester of our final year. We were in the same class,” she said. “He happened to sit down at my dinner table that evening. We had assigned seats and his table wasn’t in use that night so he had to scrounge around some 3,000 seats and find an empty one and he found the one across from me.”

The meeting was strictly by chance as he was pursuing an accounting degree and she was taking classes in another part of the campus as she worked toward her bachelor of science degree in biology and chemistry. “We only dated six weeks before graduation. He wasn’t to the ‘I like you stage’ yet but I was.”

Mrs. Hutchinson checked out her dinner companion and liked what she learned. “I was really taken by him but I checked him though. Looks aren’t everything. He had a wonderful smile and he got me with that but I did my research. Everybody had nothing but good things to say about him,” adding that he had a strong work ethic and had been elected twice to president of his men’s society on campus “which meant a lot.”

Both worked 20 hours a week at school to supplement payments on tuition. “He had a good work ethic and everybody liked him.”

Both also competed in debate, a strong intramural program on campus. “That’s how I kept staying in his line of view. He was actually dating someone else when he sat down across the table from me on that one evening. I checked her out too and I realized I was a better match for him than she was. I started showing up at his debates and I was the only one in the audience.”

Her attendance made an impression and he “lit up like a Christmas tree. He was very flattered. He knew precisely why I was there.”

The two talked and began to get to know one another. “He eventually got around to asking me out for lunch and it was my birthday. The following birthday I had a ring.”

After graduation, the two dated long distance as she taught biology and algebra at a Christian school in Memphis while he attended law school in Fayetteville. On a student loan and living in a rooming house with only one hot meal a day, Asa was mindful of his finances. “He was pinching pennies and his dad had loaned him a car. He was trying to be frugal and mindful of that and trying not to put too many miles on it besides not being able to put gas in the car. He would drive down to the interstate at Alma and try to get with a trucker who was going on East through Memphis.”

Hutchinson worked all summer in a factory before the two were married in August 1973 in Atlanta. Their honeymoon was spent driving back to Fayetteville in the summer heat. “The car was not fitted with air conditioning and it was a standard and it broke down. The radiator overheated so he stopped on the side of the road, it was nowhere, and there was a piece of string and he wrapped it around some spot on the radiator. There was some cup sitting there with rainwater in it and he put it in too.

“At the next exit there was a Sears Automotive and we pulled offer there and he had a Sears card. We were pinching pennies. My uncle gave us 50 bucks at the wedding and later he told me he really needed that for the move.”

The governor and first lady have been married for 41 years. They have four children, five grandchildren (ages 2 ½ to 15) and a 5-year-old rescue cat named Snowflake.

As they continue to settle in at the Governor’s Mansion, Mrs. Hutchinson is busy attending events and working on her platform. She brings to the Governor’s Mansion a lifetime of experience advocating for and working with children.

A former schoolteacher, she has spent the past several years on the board of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Benton County — one of 14 non-profit Children’s Advocacy Centers around the state that work with abused children.

Among other initiatives, Mrs. Hutchinson hopes to see the establishment of more Children’s Advocacy Centers in Arkansas. “We’re there for the child,” she said, explaining the centers offer a variety of services. “Fourteen out of 75 counties is pitiful….We need more and they could serve more than one county. We need them more accessible.”

Issues affecting children are critical to the first lady. “It’s important to me because it’s children and they are the most vulnerable of us all.”