CHEYENNE – When Matt Mead was elected to serve as Wyoming’s 32nd governor, his life wasn’t the only one that changed.
After Nov. 2, 2010, the lives of his wife, daughter and son were all altered as well.
“I remember right after the general election, when Matt had won, then the next morning I woke up and there was security parked in the driveway, and I thought, ‘Holy buckets – things have changed,’” said Carol Mead, Wyoming’s first lady.
That morning, as Carol Mead pulled out of the driveway with her children, Mary and Pete, two security vehicles followed them. But she didn’t get too far before she realized she had forgotten her phone and had to turn around, causing the security vehicles to turn around and follow her back to the house.
At the time, it seemed overwhelming for the woman who would become the Cowboy State’s first lady just a few weeks later.
“By noon, I called Matt and said, ‘I can’t do this,’” Carol Mead said with a laugh. “I felt like I was inconveniencing them; like I should organize my day better. It was such a strange new world to us in so many ways.”
But nearly eight years later, as Matt Mead approaches the twilight of his second and final term as governor, the first lady looked back at her time, feeling like they tried to approach it like the old campsite rule: leave it better than you found it.
“Obviously, I was never the elected official, but I’ve had a sense of that public servant role,” Carol Mead said. “I think we both tried to bring what we could and things we felt we could work on. … I feel like I fulfilled that, and he did.”
Children in focus
The Meads’ lives became incredibly busy when they hit the campaign trail nearly a decade ago, Carol Mead said.
“It was busier than my life had ever been prior to that,” she said. “Matt and I spent months on the road, getting up at 5 and going to bed at midnight, going through life on four hours of sleep and a can of cashews.”
Carol Mead said they understood Wyoming elections were won by pounding the pavement and meeting residents in gymnasiums, YMCAs and going door to door. Those events frequently included their children, who were young at the time.
When the campaign really started to heat up, Carol Mead told the media she intended to approach the job in her own way. While it wasn’t entirely clear when she was first asked, when her focused formed, she said her initiative would be on improving the lives and opportunities of children.
“Our son had just finished fourth grade, and his sister was a sixth-grader – they were just little kids – so I knew, to be authentic to who I am and what I was most involved with then, it would make sense to do something involved with children’s issues,” Carol Mead said. “Both Matt and I were committed to making Wyoming a better place. So if that is your place, it makes sense to start at the foundation, and children are the foundation. They are the future.”
Literacy seemed like a place she could have a positive effect.
“Whether their parents are homeless or struggle with drugs and alcohol, delinquency, pregnancy – one day, these children will grow up to be adults, and they do not have the skills to read and educate themselves; they can’t pull out of the place they are,” Carol Mead said. “If they do have those skills when they become an adult, they can better their lives and reach their potential.”
With the help of partners, Carol Mead worked to establish a statewide literacy research center and clinic in 2014. She co-chairs the Outreach and Advisory Board of the Wyoming Literacy Research Center and Clinic and helped launch “Eat. Read. Grow.” – a Cheyenne-based program.
The “Eat. Read. Grow.” program also spurred similar initiatives around the state where communities provide a meal to disadvantaged families, give each child in the family a book and more to emphasize the importance of reading. Carol Mead also authored the children’s book “Wyoming Firsts” and is now working on another publication, she said.
There’s always more that could be done to improve childhood literacy, Carol Mead said. But in the governor’s term in office, she said she’s proud of the work.
“I don’t know if you ever feel, ‘I’ve done it all’ – there’s always more that can be done – but I am pleased with the things I’ve been able to do,” she said.
In addition to promoting healthy lifestyles for children to complement a push for literacy, Carol Mead also put an emphasis on the arts. After some time experiencing the art of students around the state, she said she was compelled to bring it under the roof of the governor’s residence.
“It struck me that here we are at the governor’s mansion, we have all this professional art displayed around the mansion, and I thought to myself, ‘This is all these kids’ home now too, and we aren’t displaying any of that talent – we need to,’” Carol Mead said.
That led to the First Lady’s Young Artist Showcase at the governor’s residence. And she not only employed Wyoming high school artists for illustrating “Wyoming Firsts,” the first lady also has given state employees handcrafted Christmas ornaments as gifts during the holiday season.
Carol Mead said it all goes back to making sure art-oriented students in Wyoming have the same validating experiences for their talents as other those involved in other activities.
“Sports get all the money, attention and time, and all these kids who are not athletes, but maybe have another talent of an equal or greater magnitude, aren’t really noticed sometimes,” she said. “It’s so important for someone to recognize kids’ talents and encourage them along that path.”
Looking back, looking forward
While she wanted to take her own approach to the job, Carol Mead is a true admirer of Wyoming’s past first ladies.
“Each one (of the living first ladies) has been incredibly helpful to me in different ways,” she said. “Whether it was as advice or just a shared laugh, seeing them at an event and chatting just about common ground, I certainly have learned from each of them.”
Carol Mead said she’s not one who has regrets; instead, she looks at life as a series of learning experiences. Would she have spent more time with her kids in the earlier years during the governor’s tenure? Yes.
“I do think we struggled with balance at the beginning,” Carol Mead said. “It took my daughter pointing that out to make me realize that I needed to scale back on something and spend more time with them.”
With their daughter now in college at the University of Wyoming and their son planning on heading there when he graduates from high school, Carol Mead said she thinks about how the moments with children are fleeting. The schedule for a governor’s family is aggressive, she said, and it took the Meads time to figure out how to balance that.
Taking on the massive role of being the family of the state’s top executive is, like anything in life, transactional, Carol Mead said.
“No matter what you say ‘yes’ to, there are eight things you regretted not being able to get to,” she said.
As Matt Mead’s time as the state’s top elected official comes to an end, his wife said she’s happy they won’t be too far away from the kids at the University of Wyoming.
“Selfishly, I like having them that close,” Carol Mead said with a grin.
There’s still plenty of time left before the journey really wraps up for the Meads as Wyoming’s first family. Matt Mead has said repeatedly he does not plan to seek elected office in the future. Instead, he wants to return to the family’s ranch west of Cheyenne.
Carol Mead said she is happy with that. Adjusting to life outside of the governor’s residence – without constant demands for scheduling appearances, critical decisions, comments, security detail – will likely be as strange as it was to make the opposite work in 2010.
When the governor hands the reins over to a new top executive early next year, Carol Mead said she’ll not only leave satisfied her family did the best they could, she will look forward to a different life with new possibilities.