by KATIE EUBANKS
First Lady Elee Reeves
Faith, family, and life at the Governor’s Mansion
Downtown Jackson is a beautiful place to be on a Sunday, “because of all the church bells,” says Mississippi First Lady Elee Reeves. “They all have different melodies.”
One of those churches is Galloway United Methodist, where Elee and her husband, Gov. Tate Reeves, attend with their three girls. Easter was the family’s first Sunday back at Galloway since COVID-19 hit in spring 2020. Like most of us, their lives have been upended over the last year or so.
Even now, attendance at Galloway is limited to 125. “I’ll be happy when we can all be together again,” Elee says.
“I definitely think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Elee’s friendly, open demeanor and easy smile reflect that optimism — something church and state both could use after a tough 14 months.
Questioning and confirming
Elee (pronounced EE-lee) grew up in Tylertown (pop. 1,845), where her grandfather ran a furniture store and a hardware store, and her mom was related to just about everybody. When Elee was young, her parents divorced. Though they remain friends to this day, no divorce is fun for a kid: Elee wrote a letter to Tay Gillespie, founder of Strong River Camp & Farm in Pinola, and asked if she could live there.
Elee didn’t move to Strong River, but she did go to camp there, and took her memories with her to Millsaps College in Jackson, where she met Tate as a freshman.
“A bunch of people at Millsaps went to Strong River. His group of friends and I would sing all the songs, and he thought we were crazy,” she says. “(He’d joke), ‘That’s a cult.’”
But the future governor, who was raised Baptist, and Elee, who was raised Methodist, were drawn together:
“When he played basketball at Millsaps, his coach was Methodist and made all of them come to Galloway,” Elee says.
For her part, the big spiritual and practical influences in her life were her Girl Scout leader, Sunday school teachers, and the pastors who helped confirm her belief in Christ.
“In the Methodist church you have confirmation class in sixth grade. The Methodist conference moves preachers around, but one of my best friend’s dads was our preacher, David Price. That (confirmation class) was the first time I really thought about things,” she says.
“The next time was at Millsaps, in the Heritage course. They were trying to make you think outside the box. I called my pastor (at the time, due to questions raised in the class). It really made me question things, but it also confirmed, yes, Jesus is my Savior.”
In November 2001, after Elee and Tate graduated Millsaps — she with a bachelor’s and master’s in business administration, he with a bachelor’s in economics — they got married at Galloway.
Two years later, state Treasurer Marshall Bennett resigned. That’s when the new phase of Elee and Tate’s life started.
‘Do you think I should run for treasurer?’
Tate’s friends started calling him and asking if he would run to fill Bennett’s position.
“(Tate asked me), ‘Do you think I should run for treasurer?’” Elee recalls.
“I grew up in a family where we participated in the political process, but never campaigned,” she says. “(Tate and I) talked about what if we win, what if we don’t win. There was never a time when it was like, ‘Are you going to do this and I’m going to be mad?’ I’ve always been his cheerleader.”
At the time, “I worked for a hedge fund, and he worked at Trustmark,” she says. “We quit our jobs and worked out of an extra office that his dad had. We had one volunteer (on the campaign).”
That very first race for state treasurer was Elee’s favorite, she says, because “it’s my most fond memory of campaigning. We were road tripping together for six months.”
After Tate became the first Republican ever to serve as Mississippi’s treasurer, Elee went back to her job.
In Tate’s first year in office, he and Elee’s oldest daughter, Tyler, was born. The following year, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Elee’s mother had 2 feet of water on the second floor of her home in Ocean Springs, “so she came and lived with us,” Elee says.
At the same time, “we were building a house,” and Tate “was so busy because you’re trying to maintain your state’s bond rating (after a disaster like that). He was on the phone with all the bond rating agencies.”
Balancing family, work and politics has been the norm for Elee and Tate for 17 years, as Tate served two terms as treasurer and two as lieutenant governor before taking office as governor in 2020. Their daughters have never known life outside of politics.
Elee laughs when she remembers the state fair coming to town, and Tyler (16), Emma (14) and Maddie (9) asking, “Do we have to give out those push cards (for Dad’s campaign) again?”
But between track, basketball, soccer and Girl Scouts, the Reeves girls experience plenty of normal life — though the definition of “normal” has changed for everyone recently.
COVID, quarantine and the Governor’s Mansion
In March 2020, the Reeves family spent spring break in Spain, where Emma played competitive soccer.
“That was right around the time we were first hearing about COVID,” Elee says. “We thought, ‘Maybe we should bring a mask.’ My doctor had given me five paper masks (one for each of us). We had a great time.”
That Wednesday night, President Donald Trump announced the closing of the U.S. border.
“It wasn’t closed to U.S. citizens, but that didn’t translate,” Elee says. “I moved our flight up. It was at 10 a.m. We got there at 6:30, and the line was out the airport door.”
Tate, of course, had to handle the state’s official response to the virus. Meanwhile, he and his family had just moved into the Governor’s Mansion. “We were still getting settled,” she says.
“We kept thinking (we were) about to turn the corner, but (COVID) just kept going,” she says. “We sold our home in Flowood. It’s been very odd being downtown (during a pandemic), but it’s made us appreciate the beauty of the house.”
The Mississippi Governor’s Mansion is the second oldest continuously occupied governor’s residence in America. Continuously occupied, yes — but by people under 18 years old? It’s been a while.
“We were trying to figure it out the other day,” Elee says. “Maybe (former Gov.) Ray Mabus (had his kids here)?”
An Instagram post from January shows Maddie throwing a rare Mississippi snowball, scooped up from the mansion lawn, at Elee, who groans in mock pain upon impact. A soccer goal, a basketball goal and dog toys adorn the grounds. Two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Belle and Hazel, keep the family company.
And yes, there are sleepovers at the Governor’s Mansion. The family has private quarters upstairs, tucked away from the period furniture of the “historical” rooms that are open to the public for tours.
Speaking of the historical rooms, Elee has resurrected the Friends of the Mansion committee, started in 1974 by former Gov. William and Elise Winter. The committee will raise money to reupholster furniture in the gold and rose parlors and foyer downstairs, and the four bedrooms, sitting area and landing upstairs. People actually sit on the parlor furniture, including the yellow sofa featured on the cover of MCL.
“Our plan is to redo everything in these same types of fabrics. (Somebody) was actually supposed to come get some furniture from the rose parlor this week,” Elee says. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History is in charge of the project, but she gets to head up the fundraising.
“It’s $50 to join the Friends of the Mansion committee, and we plan to have a garden party every year, hopefully.” At press time, the 2021 garden party was to be held on the mansion grounds on April 27.
Staying home during quarantine also allowed the Reeves family to focus on the Word of God. And if you ever think your kids aren’t watching what you do, take note:
“For a while, Tate was doing those Facebook Lives (in which he read scripture, prayed and shared the gospel). I would cook brunch, and I would come in, and literally all three girls would have their Bibles out and highlighting the verses he was going to be speaking on,” Elee says.
Track meets, nail appointments and board meetings
The biggest challenge of serving as first lady is time, Elee says. For instance, her photo shoot and interview with MCL was sandwiched in between two of Emma’s track and field events: the 3200-meter relay in the morning, and the 1-mile in the afternoon.
“One thing Tate has always done a very good job of is prioritizing our family,” Elee says. “Like today, he had a bunch of meetings, but one minute before Emma ran (this morning), he texted me and said, ‘I’m here.’”
Even as first lady, Elee still works as an investment advisor at Coker Palmer in Jackson. “My bosses are amazing,” she says. “I generally come home at lunch and do whatever Ann (Beard, my chief of staff at the mansion) has for me in the afternoon.”
That could include anything from ribbon cuttings to receptions (which are starting to be held at the mansion again) and board meetings.
Elee already served on a number of boards, and then some board memberships came with the first lady territory, such as the International Ballet Competition (the competition is scheduled for next year!). Elee’s other board memberships include:
◆ Mississippi Programs of HOPE (Housing, Opportunities for treatment, Parental supports, Economic security) — co-chair
◆ Mississippi Family First Initiative – co-chair
◆ Investment Policy Board, General Louis Wilson Fund, Millsaps College
◆ Marsha McCarty Wells Endowment Fund, Millsaps College
◆ Investment Committee, Mississippi Museum of Art Foundation
◆ UMMC’s MIND (Memory Impairment and Neurodegenerative Dementia) Center
◆ Advisory Board, Center for Violence Prevention
◆ Investment Advisory Committee, Kappa Delta National Leadership Team
◆ Keep Mississippi Beautiful
◆ Jackson Futbol Club
◆ Friends of Vicksburg National Military Park
“(With some organizations) it’s nice that I knew what was going on at the (state) Legislature,” she says. “It’s funny, things I was invested in outside of politics, it’s kind of a bridge and ties together.”
She recently rolled off the Girl Scouts of Greater Mississippi board, but she’s been a troop leader for 22 years, largely due to the influence of her own childhood troop leader, Janet Stewart.
“She instilled in you a right and wrong way of doing things, a right way of making friends, not leaving anybody out. And she taught us how to do things for yourself. We went camping … I learned there were things I could do that I didn’t realize,” Elee says.
So as an adult, when she heard that St. Richard Catholic School in Jackson didn’t have enough troop leaders, she called Girl Scouts and volunteered. Then she started troops for Tyler, Emma and Maddie when they each reached kindergarten. Elee is currently Maddie’s troop leader.
“Hopefully I am the mentor to (my Girl Scouts) that my leader was to me.”
In addition to leading Girl Scouts, attending events and serving on boards, Elee reads to schoolchildren and hosts the occasional dignitary, including an ambassador from Uzbekistan, who visited in early 2020 before the pandemic.
“I’m not very into the politics,” she says. “I do the more fun things.”
Elee also tries to grant every speaking request. It just depends on time, she says. “If (the event is) at 7 p.m. on the coast, and the girls have school the next day,” she says, that might not work.
Technically, she doesn’t have to do any of the above. When asked about the first lady’s “official” duties, it’s clear this thought hasn’t crossed her mind. “I guess you could be first lady and not do anything,” she says with a shrug. But what would be the point?
Between Ann Beard at the Governor’s Mansion, an assistant at Coker Palmer, and a Google calendar, Elee stays pretty organized. (Of course, Tyler and Emma have cell phones and can access said calendar, so they might horn in on their mom’s nail appointments.)
But the day rarely follows the calendar to a T. That’s normal for anyone. Add a pandemic and state government to the mix, and … well, how do you de-stress?
“We take walks from here to the Capitol,” Elee says. “I read a lot, and Tate does too. When I get home and Tate’s already upstairs with his book, I know, ‘Oh, he had a bad day.’”
The best part of being first lady?
“I would have to say the people. We have gotten to know so many different types of Mississippians and what matters to them,” Elee says.
“I hope that’s one thing my girls will learn through this, to be a people person. They’ve (also) had to adapt, become self-sufficient.”
Adapting has been the name of the game for all Mississippians over the past year, but the outlook is good, Elee says. “My hope is that the kids can start school next year without masks.”
Either way, the Reeves girls should be able to keep adapting and taking care of business — just like their mom.