It has been nearly 15 years since Kim Henry assumed the role of Oklahoma’s first lady. In late 2002, Henry’s husband Brad became Oklahoma’s 26th governor, and the young couple, together with their three young daughters, moved into the Governor’s Mansion.
During their time in office, the Henrys were warm, charming and hospitable, and always eager to shake the hand of a fellow Oklahoman. Now the former first lady sits down for a candid look back at her life in the spotlight, and gives us an update on her family, mid-life and being an empty-nester.
What are some of your happiest memories from your days in the Governor’s Mansion? “I think the whole family has some very fond memories of living in the mansion. It really was a tremendous honor. I remember loving the fact I could let the kids go outside and play and not have to worry about keeping a constant eye on them. I knew they were safe inside the grounds; I didn’t have to worry about them wandering off. They weren’t going anywhere. About a week into Brad’s administration, we were hosting our first dinner event. The weather had warmed up and it turned out to be a beautiful January day. The guests were about to arrive, so I went outside to find the kids. Of course, they were nowhere to be found.
Unfortunately, I noticed the guests coming through the gates at the same time I saw all these clothes up in the trees hanging down almost like laundry. The girls and some of their friends were playing outside, climbing in the trees, and as it got warmer they removed their coats and sweaters and left them high up on the branches. I was horrified. But I remember being more horrified by the thought of our guests finding me up in the trees trying to take the clothes down. So I left them and acted like nothing was unusual and hoped they didn’t see the disaster zone in their path.
“We also had a Christmas where the heater went out. We needed to order a special part, but since it was Christmas, it was going to take a few days. We spent that Christmas morning in coats, scarves, hats and gloves huddled by the fire in the family room opening presents and drinking hot chocolate. It was one of our best Christmases.
“And one of my favorite memories is during warm weather, having dinner outside on the second floor balcony overlooking the grounds and the Capitol dome. It was always so beautiful and peaceful. It was my moment of Zen amidst the chaos.”
How difficult was it for you and the girls adjusting to the harsh glare of the spotlight? “Everyone handles situations and changes differently. And I think the girls’ answer to this question may have changed over the years as they grew older and reflected back on the experience. At times, it was fun and exciting for them … and at other times, it was difficult and awkward. It’s hard wanting to go to the mall with your friends as a teenager but have security following you. But then again, they loved going to concerts and getting backstage passes because that security guy following you all day had connections with the security at the concert. It was a great lesson of having to take the good along with the bad. It was also a great opportunity to teach humility: The girls knew people were always watching them – and judging their character based on the behavior they witnessed at that one point in time. The girls had to decide what kind of person they wanted people to see, and then most importantly, become that person when no one was looking. They also learned that unfortunately, they had to make their mistakes on the front page of the newspaper and maybe even the evening news, so they had to think long and hard about the decisions they made. My girls didn’t have the luxury of making childhood mistakes in private. But, they were also afforded a lot of privileges. Another lesson in taking the good along with the bad. In the end, I hope it made my girls’ characters stronger and gave them more opportunity for self-reflection and personal values.
“And the same goes for me. I have never been comfortable in the spotlight. I much prefer being a behind-the-scenes kind of girl. But I wanted desperately to carry myself with grace and dignity and make the state I love so much proud. It was stressful for me, but it was also a fun and exciting time. I think I grew a lot personally and, like the girls, had the opportunity for some self-reflection along the way.”
“Some of the very best people I know are teachers. They are amazing individuals and are my role models even to this day.”
– Kim Henry
You are an educator by profession; do you miss teaching? “Yes, I taught for 10 years. I loved teaching and I loved working with my students. And I do miss it. Some of the very best people I know are teachers. They are amazing individuals and are my role models even to this day. I truly think my time in the classroom and the wonderful people I worked with helped to prepare me for when Brad was elected. I was, and still am, really uncomfortable with public speaking. I used to get through a speech on the campaign trail and afterward by pretending the audience was just a classroom full of teenagers. However, I had to resist the urge to ask, ‘Could you spit out your gum, please?’”
It’s been several years since you were Oklahoma’s first lady. Bring us up to date on what you are doing now. “I am the executive director of Sarkeys Foundation, a private charitable foundation providing grants to nonprofits across the state to help them run programs and provide services for the underserved populations of our state. It is extremely rewarding to work with people who have such a passion for charities and for helping those less fortunate. I get to see the compassion of Oklahomans for others every day. I love my job.”
What about Governor Henry and the girls? Give us an update on their lives. “Brad has a business consulting firm that he seems to really enjoy. Leah is 27 and living in Denver; she is working on her Master’s degree in education. Laynie is 25 and married. She and her husband Ben are living in Turkey – Ben coaches American football at a university and Laynie teaches English at a Turkish school. Baylee is a sophomore at the University of Central Oklahoma majoring in speech pathology.”
You’re not exactly Eva Gabor in “Green Acres,” but you are living a country life now in rural Edmond. What is that like? “We love it. We have five acres and lots of trees. It’s very peaceful and cozy. I feel like I live in the middle of the woods, but we are one mile from every major highway. It is pretty awesome.”
What are some of your favorite local hotspots where we might find you and the Governor? “We love eating out. We love Vito’s and Flip’s and West. We are also trying to eat at every restaurant in the Downtown/Midtown/Bricktown area. It’s quite a challenge and it may take us years, but I think we are up to the task. I also really love cooking, so most evenings you can find us at home – usually outside by the fireplace enjoying a glass of wine.”
Are Oklahomans sometimes caught off guard when they see a former first lady in their midst? “I don’t know about that. Oklahomans are such friendly people and everyone I have met, regardless of political persuasion, has been very polite and gracious to me.”
You and Governor Henry played a major role in our state’s government, yet you are just like many others of your generation who are now dealing with mid-life and empty-nest syndrome. How difficult is that? “Mid-life is hard. My memory is gone – I have to write everything down – along with my eyesight. It seems like I have to color my hair more often, and I found myself pulling my face skin up in the mirror trying to find my reflection of 25 years ago. I hated it when my last child moved out to go to school. The house was quiet and felt empty. I was in a funk for about three months until I realized I had less laundry to do, the living room and kitchen always seemed to stay clean and no one ate my chocolate. Also, my sweaters and boots didn’t go missing as often. I thought, ‘Maybe this empty nest thing isn’t so bad.’ I guess it’s another lesson in taking the good with the bad.”
What do you think of the phrase “Kim Henry for Governor?” “It gives me hives!” [laughs]