During a whirlwind tour of several counties in eastern Tennessee on Sept. 19, Gov. Bill Lee stopped by the Citizen Tribune offices and, his wife, Maria joined him. The couple demonstrated their ease with discussing their relationship and the challenges of managing the highest office in the state.
Their story is a romantic one. Granted, it’s not your average, every day, fairy tale kind of story.
Maria Lee grew up in a middleclass neighborhood, of Italian heritage. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom, and her dad worked in the construction trades industry, as a tile installer. She was a third-grade teacher at a Nashville-area school, when she met the future governor – a number of years prior to their first date.
Before entering politics, Bill Lee held various positions at the Lee Company, an inherited family business. He was the company’s president and CEO from 1992 to 2016.
In the summer of 2000, Bill lost his first wife, Carol Ann, to a horse riding accident. The couple had four children, all of whom are now adults: daughters, Jessica and Sara Kate and twin sons, Jacob and Caleb.
Maria was Caleb’s third-grade teacher prior to the tragedy and, through happenstance, was his fourth-grade teacher as well. They developed a special bond – and Maria also coached Jessica in cross-country and track.
“I spend a lot of time with my kids’ teachers during that season, because it was so traumatic. I was trying to be closer with the school, and I got a little more engaged with the children. That’s really how we met. It took a few years.
“She had a unique relationship with one of my sons, Caleb. When his mom died, she was there for him in ways, as a teacher he loved and had a great deal of respect for,” Bill said during the September interview.
“Maria came into my life just as the skies were clearing,” Bill wrote in the epilogue of his book “This Road I’m On.” “And what she has brought to me for the past ten years has been a new level of joy and love and devotion that was difficult for me to even imagine in those cloudiest of days.”
Maria and Bill Lee were married in October 2008 on their farm. They live in a two-story home on nearly 7 acres in the Williamson County community of Fernvale. They attend Grace Chapel Church and have participated in mission trips around the world, including building houses in Mexico and working in an orphanage in Haiti.
In addition to traveling with the campaign, Maria Lee was involved in several critical decisions, including giving Bill the advice “not to go down that road,” when Lee was considering whether to respond in kind to negative ads by his Republican opponents during the primary. His decision not to participate in a negative campaign is what some political experts have said ultimately led to his win.
Is the farm a respite?
Maria: “We do try to get back out there on the weekends; sometimes it’s the whole weekend, other times it’s kind of piece meal.”
Bill: “We will be out there tonight. We will actually get back into town around 7:30 p.m., we’ll fly back. We don’t always fly, we drive a lot, but on a day like today we will have gone to about five counties across the state. We’ll land in Nashville around 7:30 or 8, and we’ll go to the farm and we’ll stay there through Sunday night, then go back to the governor’s residence on Monday.”
“For me it feels like an anchor,. We try to get to the farm every weekend. We don’t get to go every weekend.
Maria: “That’s our goal.”
Bill: “It reminds me of who I am and what’s behind all of this. It also reminds you that the world you live in on Capitol Hill is not what the rest of Tennessee is really like: so when you go back home to the farm, you’re reminded of what Tennessee really is. It makes me more equipped to do the job when I get back to the office.”
Maria ‘s Summer initiative
Maria’s summer initiative was a success. Nearly 400 school children signed up to do the challenge.
Maria: “We, just two weekends ago, had a carnival to celebrate all the kids that finished the challenge out at the residence. We put together a DIY carnival. They were able to bring two adults with them. It was just all focused on them and what they did and just celebrating what they did for other people in their communities. They were great. A lot of them came up with pretty creative ideas on how to serve people.
Did your mother influence your choice of initiative?
“Yes, both my parents had a big influence on me choosing this particular initiative,” Maria said. “For me, it’s not really an initiative, it’s just what I do and where my heart is. I thought, ‘Gosh, if I get there, what am I going to do? I can’t just stop trying to help or serve where I can. Well, that’s what I’ll do.’
“I didn’t have a lot growing up, but my parents, out of what little they had, helped where they could, whether it be helping somebody fix a car in the neighborhood or my mom taking care of elderly neighbors; as a family, we took in babies through a pre-adopt program for many years. Just watching them serve others, I think, instilled in me a heart for service.”
Is that what attracted you to this
fellow over here?
Maria: “Yes, very much so. I taught his kids, I knew his late wife. I kind of watched their life and knew a little bit about who he was as a leader in the community.
“I knew that he was very generous and very giving, personally through his family and through his company, and that was a big draw for me, to see his heart for other people and his generosity.”
Bill: “Vice versa.”
Maria “And his humor, his kindness and his leadership,”
Bill: “Vise versa.”
So, where did you go on your first date?
Bill: “She’s Italian, so I thought I would take her to an Italian restaurant.”
Maria (laughing): “It was Carrabba’s.”
Bill: “OK, so it’s not a very exclusive Italian restaurant (they both laughed, loudly) “But it’s an Italian restaurant; she’s Italian, so I said, ‘I think she’ll like that.’”
Busy schedules vs the need to serve
Bill: “I think one of the unanticipated challenges was schedules. I knew that it would be busy — of course you would, you would expect that schedule’s going to be really different — but it’s more challenging than I thought.
“Part of it is that you get into this job and you are so honored to be in it: you want to do everything. You want to do everything and be everywhere and thank everyone and so you end up accepting lots of invitations to lots of events and then after five or six months of that, you start realizing you can’t do that for the next four years.
“We are starting to be more thoughtful about how we decide how it is that we spend our time so that we can be more effective.
“If you do too much, you don’t do any of it well. We’ve gotten a lot of great things done in our first nine months, but we need to be really effective for the next three and a half years and we’ll do that by really managing that schedule in a good way.”
Spending time together.
Bill: Our schedules are not the same; we try to make them overlap frequently,” said. I said last night, ‘Hey, I’m glad we’re together all day tomorrow.’ And we spend a lot of days together, but there are days when we’re not together.”
Maria: “And I do I feel like one of my main jobs is to be able to support him and so on the days when I can go with him, like today — however many counties we are in — then I try to do that. Then trying to fit in service projects and meetings and different things.”
Lee: “And we have a personal life, too: kids and grandkids (five, with three on the way).”
Maria laughed “We do? It’s a learning year for sure, how to work and juggle and everything.”
Is there a code word, or a certain look that Maria gives you, to indicate it’s time to go or get out of a certain situation?
“Oh, I’ve known that look for 10 years,” Lee said. “That’s not new. We’re pretty direct; we don’t need code words.”
The holidays are approaching and this will be your first year in office
during the holidays.
Maria: “It means a lot more Christmas trees, to fill that house, at least 10 or 11. We’re coming up with a theme and coming up with a plan to get everybody together to put up all the decorations throughout the house.
“The residence will be open Dec 6 and continue every day for two weeks.”
What do the holidays mean to you,
Bill: “We’ll spend it at the farm with our family.”
Maria: “One of the traditions he had in his family growing up was going out on the farm and cutting down a cedar tree. We’ll probably carry that over as well – and instead of one big cedar tree, we’ll be cutting down two, one for the residence.
Do you actually cut down the tree yourself?
Bill: “I usually let the kids do it, but now that they’ve grown up, I’ll let the grandkids do it. The kids are cutting their own, actually, so it turns out to be a lot of trees. We use an axe and then we drag it to the (laughs). Yeah, it’s a long-standing tradition, 50 years for me. I’m turning 60 next week. As long as I can remember, we’ve cut our own Christmas trees.”
How big is your family celebration?
Bill: “On the farm, there are nine households.
“So there are a lot of us on the Lee side. So, when we have Christmas Eve’s eve: two nights before Christmas, we have dinner at my mom’s house.
“So there will be about 45 there, it’s expanding all the time; we have three grandchildren on the way.
“We oftentimes go to Maria’s family the day after Christmas, and there’s a crowd of those, too, 25 or 30.
Maria: “Some of my family make it up for Thanksgiving, too.”
Bill: “There are a lot of folks. Gatherings at the farm are, because so many of my family live on the same property, big gatherings. And the new residence is 20 miles from the farm.
Maria: “We are fortunate.”