Deborah Bryant | Mississippi’s First Lady

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by MARILYN TINNIN

First Lady Deborah Bryant says that she has just never been an “out there” sort of person—one who seeks the limelight. There was a time when she saw that trait of hers as a weakness for someone married to a man with political ambitions. In her very unassuming and selfdeprecating way, she has endeared herself to just about everyone in this state precisely because she is authentically “just Deborah.” She is indeed completely unpretentious and one who has learned to be comfortable in a role that she never envisioned and, had it been left entirely up to her, would probably not have spent even one second praying for!

From the time Phil Bryant was elected to the legislature in 1990, Deborah has found the parameters of her comfort zone in constant expansion mode! This confident and comfortable “First Lady” did not arrive in her role of political spouse without some growing pains, but as she looks back on all that she has learned over the years, she says, “I am who I am. And I have realized that that’s all people really want me to be. I find that out every single day in this job.When people tell me they are praying for me, I believe it.”

She can laugh today about her past angst. Her first speech came as a surprise. She was on her way to a luncheon with the Lowndes County Republican Women in 2007 during her husband’s campaign for Lieutenant Governor. One of his campaign staffers was driving her and just mentioned matter-of-factly, “Now since Phil is not going to be here, you will be representing him. You will speak right after Marsha Barbour.She describes the emotions of sheer panic as she immediately replied, “Oh, no I’m not. I don’t do speeches.” And she began frantically dialing her husband’s cell phone.

Deborah says she ended up sketching out her biography for the person who was going to introduce her. “And then,” she laughs, “There was really nothing left for me to say. I am a pretty simple person!” She can’t remember what she said when it was her turn to speak, but she had no option or experience to know how to be anything except herself. To her surprise, she found that people seemed to like her that way.

On the day of our interview, she had been invited to speak at this same group’s luncheon—five years later. Since that first uncomfortable time, she has had so many opportunities to speak and is not quite as terrified as she was on that original occasion. This time, she had her note cards and had even done some rehearsing. When she stood to approach the podium, however, she dropped her cards and they went everywhere. Unflappable lady that she has become, she thought, “Oh well. They’ve got just plain old me again.” And so her second extemporaneous speech was even more successful than the first. She has learned not to sweat the “small stuff.”

FAMILY BACKGROUND

Deborah Hays Bryant is the fourth of five children born to Doris and Hardy Hays. She has three brothers and one older sister and recalls a childhood that could not be more 1950’s idyllic. “We never had a lot of money,” she says, “but we weren’t poor. We had everything we needed.” Her grandfather had owned a good bit of land in what used to be the country, but as west Jackson grew up around them, their “country” rapidly became part of the capital city.

Deborah describes a close-knit family and a close-knit neighborhood where relationships ran deep, where children played baseball and softball in the vacant lot across the street, where they tromped through the woods together to find the perfect Cedar tree at Christmas, and where summer vacations meant playing outside from daylight until dark—as well as taking family vacations with the entire neighborhood! Despite the changes that time has wrought on the demographic of her old neighborhood, she has maintained ties with all of those families. The Van Winkle community was a wonderful place to grow up in those days, and Deborah considers herself quite blessed to have grown up exactly as she did.

She attended Lake Elementary School, Hardy Junior High School, and graduated from Provine High School. Her church was also in the neighborhood. The Van Winkle Methodist Church stood on land donated by her grandfather, and the Hays children were there every time the doors opened. In fact, the church stood in such close proximity to their home, that rarely did her parents crank up the car to get to church. They walked through the neighborhood year in and year out. It is one of Deborah’s dearest memories—the fact that all the important things in her life were right there close at hand.

She was christened and married in that same church, and it had been such a cornerstone of her life that she had quite a tough adjustment moving her membership to another church years after she and Phil were married.

As a little girl, did she have dreams of what her life might look like when she grew up? Like almost all little girls of her generation her number one dream was to grow up, get married, have children and “live happily ever after.” It wasn’t very complicated or politically correct or anything like that. But it was a very authentic dream for Deborah Hays. And she hasn’t spent one day since regretting those dreams or wondering what would have happened if she had chosen something different.

The most important anchors in Deborah’s life have remained the same over the decades. It is notable that those “anchors”—like faith and family—have helped her keep her equilibrium as she found herself navigating the tenuous sea of politics.

A “John Wayne” Kind of Guy

Deborah wasn’t expecting to meet her future husband when, as a student at Hinds Community College, a mutual friend invited her to meet a group at the Pizza Hut. There was probably a degree of matchmaking behind the scenes as Deborah and Phil were sort of put together among some other established “couples.” Both of them were enrolled at Hinds, and it wasn’t too long after the Pizza Hut meeting that Deborah walked out of class one day and found Phil waiting for her. She still wonders if his explanation for being there was really because he “happened” to be there or whether he was pursuing her, but either way, she was glad to be with him.

She says she knew from the very beginning that he was going to be successful at whatever he decided to pursue. She adds that it might be a good thing that she never really considered politics as one of those possible venues! Deborah was attracted to his “John Wayne” sort of ruggedness, but she could list a million other things about him that made him stand out from others she had dated.

Like Deborah, he had grown up in a close-knit family and she could see that they shared the same valuesShe describes him as a person with strong morals, honorable ambitions, and “he was very patriotic.” Even then, that struck her as unusual, but something she really liked about him. With a little giggle she says, “He was sort of John Wayne. But I could tell that whatever he chose to do he was going to do it well.”

Perspective and Purpose

After Deborah married Phil on December 31, 1976, this young lady who was not at all fond of the word “change” found her life to be a series of changes and circumstances that called for adjustment. She began her long career with St. Dominic Hospital in March 1975, and although she served in numerous positions over the years, she liked the predictability and the sameness of her surroundings. A self-motivated worker, she says she has never needed the constant pat on the back to feel rewarded for her efforts. She sets her own standards high, and she is possibly her toughest critic and the one whose approval matters most.

In great contrast is her husband. In the early years of their marriage his boundless energy and outgoing personality were propelling him into new situations with new opportunities at every turn. He seemed to adapt effortlessly to whatever was put in front of him. He met people so easily, and he was assuming leadership roles all over the place. He was so focused and obviously had a bright future and a deep sense of purpose.

Deborah was struggling to find her place in the midst of so much change. Although she was incredibly proud of her husband, she felt somewhat purposeless as she thought of herself as “just somebody who works in medical records at St. Dominic’s.”

She was driving between dialysis centers one day alone in the car, thinking out loud and carrying on a conversation with God. “You know, God. Phil has so much purpose in his life. He is making an impact, and what do I have? I have nothing.”

And then there was a real Holy Spirit moment when the thought flashed across her mind that she was in exactly the place God had called her. She was in front of families every day—in the hall, in the clinics, in the hospital—patients and families who were going through all sorts of illness and sadness and did not want to be where they were. She could speak to them. She could comfort them, and she could lift their spirits. Her perspective changed in an instant.

Her relationship with the Lord changed, too. It was more intense and more personal than it had been through all the years of church and of doing all the right things. It moved to a whole new level when God literally gave her eyes to see something she had completely missed before. She had a new realization, too, for the manner in which Satan likes to attack believers. “He makes a person feel unworthy. He knows where our vulnerabilities are. I never felt unworthy after that day. Not that there weren’t times when I struggled, but I learned that the notbeing- worthy idea was not from God’s hand.” That lesson has never been forgotten.

The Political Fishbowl

Phil won his first political office in 1990 when he was elected to the Mississippi Legislature. He has been involved in government ever since, serving as State Auditor for nine years prior to being elected Lieutenant Governor in 2007. Deborah has had a lot of practice by now as “the candidate’s wife.” Politics, for her, has been a constant force that stretched her, challenged her, and pushed her to do things she never dreamed she would or could do.

But as much as she has grown with the demands, in so many ways, she has not changed at all. When Phil was first elected State Auditor, Deborah says she cried for two weeks. In the beginning, she was focused on the negative. She dislikes the way accusations and attacks are hurled back and forth through ads and news media. When pundits tell her not to take it seriously that “it’s just politics,” she doesn’t accept that excuse. “It’s not all about politics,” she says. “There are lives and families and other people involved, and no one wants to see people they love criticized, belittled, and ridiculed.”

It was during Phil’s long tenure as State Auditor, however, that Deborah began to see the positive aspect of public service. “He did such an outstanding job with that position, and I saw that he was really in politics for all the right reasons. I respected him for that.”

Even though she says she had some moments of “push back” when Phil announced that he wanted to run for Governor, she had no doubt that that was exactly what he should do. Her only reservations were her old feelings of inadequacy. “I can’t give a speech. I can’t do this…can’t, can’t, can’t.” Fortunately, she had another of those Holy Spirit moments when God gave her a new perspective on the situation. Her husband’s counsel was that she had always commented on her love for helping others. That is what gave her such satisfaction in her position at St. Dominic’s. As First Lady, she would have an even greater opportunity to help so many more people than she ever had the opportunity to help before.

“At first, I thought, Phil was just telling me that. But I did start looking for the positives. I also reminded the Lord that I could not do this by myself. If he wanted us to be here, then He was going to have to show me exactly how to do this.” She adds with a genuine smile, “And then I started meeting people.” She took her eyes off herself and embraced the opportunity to meet the people God put in her path.

And it has been amazing. On any given day, you might find Deborah giving tours in the mansion and not limiting her guests to just the historic original rooms. She frequently allows tourists to view the family living quarters because she firmly believes the mansion belongs to all of us. The Mansion Foundation, a charitable 501(c)(3), provided the funds to furnish the family quarters.

Although these rooms on the second floor are still a work in progress, it looks like home. Son, Patrick, who is an interior designer, selected the paint colors and the furnishings. It is a comfortable inviting place with warmth that reflects the personality of the First Lady.funds to furnish the family quarters.ving tours in the mansion and not limiting her guests to just the historic original rooms. She frequently allows tourists to view the family living quarters because she firmly believes the mansion belongs to all of us. The Mansion Foundation, a charitable 501(c)(3), provided the funds to furnish the family quarters.

Sitting across the room from her that afternoon, it was hard for me to imagine that she ever viewed herself as “not worthy” or lacking in the gifts required to make an impact in the world. From the outside looking in, I would say Deborah Hays Bryant is the epitome of style, grace, and a perfect fit for the people of Mississippi.