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A conversation with Alabama’s First Family

Alabama’s 53rd governor lives in the historic Governor’s Mansion, but he never forgets that he once lived in a rural Alabama home with no electricity.

Gov. Robert Bentley and First Lady Dianne Bentley sat down with us to discuss their day-to-day in the governor's mansion in Montgomery.
Gov. Robert Bentley and First Lady Dianne Bentley sat down with us to discuss their day-to-day in the governor’s mansion in Montgomery. Photo by Michael Cornelison

It’s not an easy task to get Gov. Robert Bentley and First Lady Dianne Bentley together at the same time, in the same place, but Alabama Living was able to snag the duo for a morning interview recently. Our conversation wasn’t political, but more about how their lives have changed since they moved into the Governor’s Mansion in 2011, and how they make time for family and keep their privacy while in the public limelight. As we learned, it’s not always easy.

Gov. Bentley was a dermatologist in Tuscaloosa for 36 years and served two terms in the Alabama House of Representatives before becoming Governor. Mrs. Bentley, a homemaker who raised four sons, often drove her husband to and from campaign stops in 2009 and 2010 as they traveled the state. But as the First Lady, she’s not as free to jump in the car and run to the grocery store for a quart of milk as she once was. That’s just one of many ways their life has changed in the past three years, as we learned during our conversation.

Alabama Living: How has life changed in the past three years you’ve lived in the mansion?

Mrs. Bentley: For me, it’s been a drastic change. He was a dermatologist in Tuscaloosa and his office was maybe two miles from the house. He would come home at lunch, have a light lunch and rest a minute and then go back to work. It was just us, and I was a stay at home mom with four sons. en grandchildren started coming and they all lived close by so I could carpool or go by and pick them up whenever I wanted. To come down here, and it’s a positive, but you’re surrounded by people from 6:30 (a.m.) on. We have a staff of ten. I learned my first week when I came downstairs in my bathrobe that you don’t come downstairs until you’re fully made up and dressed. People ask us, “What’s your favorite room?” Well, I don’t roam around down here; this is the public area. So it’s hard to adjust to people being around you all the time. You know they’re good and they’re necessary. I’m not saying it’s a negative, but sometimes you just like your space.

AL: Tell us more about living in the mansion. The upstairs is family quarters, right?

Mrs. Bentley: The upstairs is family quarters. When we have friends over, we take them upstairs. A lot of people ask to see the upstairs but it’s not anything special like the beautiful architectural design downstairs. There are two guest rooms, my office and a bedroom we use for a living room. Not anything interesting for a tour. Now the first lady of Mississippi lets people tour her whole house.

AL: Do you know her?

As she has grown into the role of First Lady, Mrs. Bentley is more at ease with public appearances. Photo by Jamie Martin
As she has grown into the role of First Lady, Mrs. Bentley is more at ease with public appearances. Photo by Jamie Martin

Mrs. Bentley: Yes. We belong to the National Governors Association. They divide you into 2 groups; one goes to spouse’s school and the other to governor’s school. Some have their own careers. Some have children. They just throw you into (situations where you learn) how to handle the press, and other things. They gave you helpful advice because they have been though it. I loved that.

AL: How long have you been married?

Mrs. Bentley: 48 years. We were married July 24, 1965 at the First United Methodist Church in Montgomery. I grew up in Montgomery and went to Lanier High School. We had our 50th reunion two years ago. I invited my classmates over here for a tour and they were just totally appalled. One of my classmates said, “You never said a word in high school.” I said, “I know, I’m really shy and here I am in this job!”

AL: But you’ve really blossomed.

Mrs. Bentley: Well, thank you.

AL: How does that make you feel, knowing that no one ever expected you to be here when you were in high school?

Mrs. Bentley: Well, it’s a good feeling. I was so scared during the campaign, I told them, “I’ll show up, I’ll be there but don’t ask me to speak.” Speaking just scares me to death. So I did two speeches and my knees were going just like this, and once we got here, I said, “OK, Lord, this is a part of this job. You put us here. You’ve got to give me the power to speak. And He has just blessed me. People say, “You’re a lot better now than you were” and I don’t know how to take that!

[At this point in our interview, Gov. Bentley joined us after a busy morning in his office at the Capitol.]

AL: Thank you for being with us. I know you’ve got a busy schedule.

Gov. Bentley: I’ve just got a lot of things going on. But I love it, I do. I love solving problems and we’ve got some real problems. Some are tougher than others.

AL: I’d asked your wife how life has changed since you moved into the Governor’s Mansion. When you were a dermatologist, I understand you got to come home for lunch.

The governor visits Central Alabama Electric Cooperative’s Continued on Page 28 Wetumpka office with President and CEO Tom Stackhouse. Photo by Jamie Martin
The governor visits Central Alabama Electric Cooperative’s 
Wetumpka office with President and CEO Tom Stackhouse. Photo by Michael Cornelison

Gov. Bentley: That’s right. I’d come home about 11:30 and I’d x me a diet Lean Cuisine pizza that I’d eat every day. It was only 330 calories. I’d rest for about 20 minutes and go back to the office about 12:30. So I would have usually an hour or 45 minutes. My oce was very close. Sometimes I’d sit down and try to relax for 10 minutes.

Mrs. Bentley: He’s good at taking power naps. He learned that in his medical school days. He can do that for about ten minutes and wake up refreshed. I can’t do that. I think that’s what’s helped him.

AL: And no power naps now?

Gov. Bentley: No, except Sunday we went to church, and Diane thought I was asleep and she punched me.

Mrs. Bentley: He’d just gotten in from Japan and Saturday we thought he was doing good, but it was a 12-hour trip. He slept late and I had to go wake him! And I looked over there (during church) and he was nodding.

Gov. Bentley: I was praying.

AL: Do you go to one church?

Mrs. Bentley: Whoever invites us, we go there. I grew up in First Methodist and that’s where we were married. It’s really kind of fun, we bop in and surprise them. One Sunday, our pilot was telling us “Ya’ll need to come to church” (with him), so we went to Hayneville Baptist.There were probably 90 people there.

Gov. Bentley: We go to Frazer (Memorial United Methodist) a lot, First Baptist Prattville.  always go back to First Baptist Tuscaloosa. I go to a regular Sunday School class and Diane still works in the nursery.

AL: So that’s how you keep the home ties?

Gov. Bentley: Yes.

AL: Who does the cooking? You have a cook, don’t you?

Mrs. Bentley: We have a cook and he cooks during the week. And for receptions and parties for us, which is fantastic because that would overwhelm me. On the weekends, I can’t cook in that kitchen. It’s like a commercial kitchen. is weekend I burned the soup. I’m not used to cooking in there. We have a great grill. So he’ll (the governor) grill hot dogs and hamburgers and things like that. We do simple things on the weekend.

AL: Do you have a favorite thing she/he cooks?

Gov. Bentley: Oh yes, Diane makes the best cornbread of anybody. I love her vegetable soup and cornbread. She fixes good chicken and dumplings, I like that. She makes good chili and good spaghetti.

Mrs. Bentley: One thing he likes to do is to have a garden and we’ve had a garden every year. He loves fresh tomatoes. Last year we planted cream peas, and zipper peas, and froze them. We love fresh vegetables.

Gov. Bentley: We had two large gardens this last year, one behind Hill House over here and another large garden by Winfield. We had peas, corn, two strains of okra, and watermelon – a lot of watermelons.

Mrs. Bentley: But they didn’t do very good.

Gov. Bentley: No, they weren’t sweet because there was too much rain. We had some squash. And a lot of tomatoes.

Mrs. Bentley: We had so many tomatoes I was threatening to set up a stand out here on the street and sell them. We could raise money for this old mansion, selling governor’s tomatoes!

AL: We want you to have your very own copy of our Alabama Living cookbook, a compilation of recipes from five years from the readers of Alabama Living. Do ya’ll ever get to see our magazine?

Mrs. Bentley: Oh, yes, I tear out recipes all the time.

AL: What’s a typical day like for you? What time do you get up?

Gov. Bentley: We get up a little after 6. I wake up but I still have an alarm. Then I get to the office. I try to leave a little after 7.

AL: What do you eat for breakfast?

Gov. Bentley: I eat the same thing every day. I eat Grape Nuts.

Mrs. Bentley: That shows age!

Gov. Bentley: It kind of fills me up. I do pretty well until I eat lunch. I’ve been on a diet lately. I’ve lost nearly 20 pounds.

AL: Was that through Scale Back Alabama?

Gov. Bentley: No, I joined that last year and gained 10 pounds! (laughs) You know, I learned a long time ago there are no tricks to losing weight. You either burn it off with exercise or just normal routine activities or you don’t eat it. It’s calories in, calories out. I do it the real way, which is, I eat less calories. Dianne and I like to walk. We haven’t lately because I had surgery about a month ago, but I’m doing great. I had a hernia repair. We walk right out here in that circle, which is one-tenth of a mile. So we walk 15 times. A mile and a half, 3, 4, or 5 times a week. We do it at night. Our security guards stand out here and they watch from the street. Sometimes people will stop. Sometimes I just want to speak to them. Some are riding by on their bicycles and they stop and talk and we talk to them.

AL: How do you nd time for each other?

Gov. Bentley: When we get home at night, I try to get home by 6, maybe 6:30 or it may be 7. en we eat, and go out and walk. Sometimes I’ll have several phone calls I have to make before bedtime. We honestly don’t have the time together that we’ve had in the past. Now we’re here together, but we’re busy… but we are in the same room together.

Mrs. Bentley: Sometimes I’ll send him an email.

Gov. Bentley: Or she’ll send me a text. She’ll say, “Hey, look over here at me.”

AL: I know you told our quilt ladies that you both like to watch “Dancing with the Stars.”

Gov. Bentley: We do like to watch that, although I’ve never danced in my life. We really don’t watch a lot of TV. We will usually watch the news at night. I hate to say it because that will tell what we’re watching but we watch the 9 o’clock news, then I watch Andy Griffith. That’s my favorite show. I saw one last night I never had seen.

AL: Do you have a favorite episode?

Gov. Bentley: I like Ernest T. Bass. I like the earlier ones that had Barney on. The later ones were not that good. It usually tells a kind of a moral story. It’s light humor. And you know what? It’s just like people I grew up with. I grew up  in Columbiana in Shelby County. 1,800 people. So I know every one of those (characters), I knew the barber, all of those.

AL: Do you get to go back?

Gov. Bentley: I go back as often as I can. I was actually born back up in the woods about 10 miles outside of town. We lived there with no electricity and no indoor plumbing until I was school age when we moved to town. I was around 6 or 7. at was the rst time I’d ever had electricity. We had kerosene lamps and obviously heated with coal. We did not have a refrigerator, so every Saturday we’d go to town to Columbiana and buy a block of ice and put it in the icebox. It truly was an icebox. It would last till Thursday. We kept all of our milk in there. In fact a lot of our milk we kept in the well; we’d lower the milk in the well and it would keep the milk cool. I still have the churn that my mother used. We had a cow. We made our own butter. She cooked on a wood stove. I still have my old home place, the land. The house was blown away by a tornado. But I still have the land. It’s 40 acres. I’d already bought 20 acres from my daddy. The day before he died, he said, “Son, I want you to have that other 20 acres. And I said, ‘Now daddy, it may upset the others. (I was one of five). I promise you this, I will buy the rest of the land from all the others and I will always keep it and I will never sell it.’ And it’s still there. I clear cut it, I replanted it. It’s just good hybrid new loblolly pines. When I go back to Columbiana, they always take me out and I always check to see how my pine trees are doing. Nobody’s living on it. In fact, when I fly over in my helicopter I can identify it. ere’s a small lake my daddy built in 1960. There’s a fire tower close by. I will always keep it. I was born there. I really don’t care if anything is ever named after me in this state. But in Columbiana, they have made the sign, “Welcome to Columbiana, home of Gov. Robert Bentley.” That’s the only thing named after me. at to me is an honor, that’s my hometown.

AL: So you can really relate to people in Alabama who grew up the same way.

Gov. Bentley: Oh, yes, there are so many people who grew up the same way, a lot of people my age and older. I grew up after the depression. My brother grew up during the depression. I can well remember we had a mule. We plowed. We raised our own food. We would dry our own fruit, the apples and peaches. We would dry our own fruit on a tin roof and you’d cover them over so the flies wouldn’t get on there. My mother would dry those and put them in a paper bag and keep them during winter. She would make apple tarts.

Mrs. Bentley: She made the best fried apple pies.

AL: How did y’all (you and Mrs. Bentley) meet?

Gov. Bentley: We didn’t really meet in college even though we started college at the same time. I remember Dianne because we were in physics class together. It was an early morning class and she was still almost asleep. We did not date at that time.

Mrs. Bentley: I am not a morning person!

Gov. Bentley: She roomed with Jeanine Mullins. Bob Mullins, who was my first Medicaid commissioner, and I were roommates in medical school and we grew up in Columbiana together. They were engaged. And Bob said, “I need someone to ride back and forth to Tuscaloosa with me to keep me awake. I want you to meet Jeanine’s roommate.” It was a blind date. We met in late October 1964. On December 31, I asked her to marry me.

AL: You knew her for two months?

Gov. Bentley: Two months. I gave her a ring that cost $248 on March 12. en we got married July 24, 1965.

AL: You move fast.

Gov. Bentley: I did. She did, too.

Mrs. Bentley: We say we were older and we knew what we wanted.

Gov. Bentley: We weren’t old!

AL: How old were you?

Gov. Bentley: We were 22. We just thought we were old!

Mrs. Bentley: I was a science major and just had taken an elective, a course for fun called “Marriage and Family.” At the end of the course, you had to write your biography and put down your goals for your future husband. Well, I hadn’t started dating him then. I listed all these goals. Then he gave me the ring, and I thought, ‘Oh, what have I done?’ So I went and got those goals and he met every single quality on there I had for a husband except one: He doesn’t dance.

Gov. Bentley: But I do like “Dancing with the Stars.”

Mrs. Bentley: So I said God put us together and he had a plan for that. He matched every one of my other desires. He was a Christian, first of all, and he loved children and family.

Gov. Bentley: What was funny was her professor, who later became one of my patients, wrote on the paper. What did he write?

Mrs. Bentley: He gave me a grade and at the end of the paper, he wrote, “Ha ha, good luck.” Years later, I wanted to say, “Ok, I did it!”