This story appeared in the October 2014 issue of Naples Illustrated.
Photography by Vanessa Rogers
It is a moment she never would have imagined, and nearly four years later, Florida’s first lady Ann Scott still recalls it vividly. It was January 4, 2011, inauguration day—the day her husband, Rick Scott, officially became the state’s governor. Even as the evening’s pomp and circumstance wound down, she recalls having boundless energy.
“After everyone had gone to bed, I was running around trying to make the house look warm, homey and inviting,” says Mrs. Scott, whose permanent residence is in Naples. “I stood there and thought, ‘I can’t believe I’m actually standing in the governor’s mansion.’ I had to pinch myself.”
She still approaches her role as first lady with the same bright-eyed awe and reverence as the moment she stepped into it.
“I always tell everyone that I’m truly honored and humbled to be their first lady,” she says. “I love everything I get to do; most of it is with children.”
Today, Mrs. Scott and her husband of 42 years are undoubtedly on the campaign trail, hoping to soon experience a moment of déjà vu, as the incumbent Republican governor is up for reelection against Democratic challenger Charlie Crist in November.
Before the campaign switched into high gear, I spent a day and a half with the first lady in Tallahassee for an in-depth, firsthand look at her life inside and out of the governor’s mansion. She shares her influences and inspiration, the children’s causes she champions, and why she initiated and led a complete overhaul of the mansion’s decor.
As a vibrantly active first lady, Mrs. Scott places her passion for reading and literacy front and center, launching the Summer Literacy Adventure among other children’s initiatives. Her daily schedule would be considered a whirlwind pace for even the most fervent planners, yet she greets everyone she meets like a summer breeze—refreshingly warm, familiar and always welcoming.
Mrs. Scott typically starts her mornings at the crack of dawn with a personal trainer, followed by breakfast and a review of the schedule. “It seems we’re always discussing the schedule because it’s constantly changing,” she says with a smile. “You have to learn to go with the flow with this job. That was one of the hardest things to get used to, because I’m a planner. You’d plan something and it would get changed. But change is good.”
On a sunny spring morning, the photographer and I arrive at the mansion just after 9 a.m. to shadow Mrs. Scott for a day. We follow the black SUV, with the first lady and security team inside, and head to our first stop.
9:30 a.m. – Reading to children at Bond Elementary School
As she steps out, Mrs. Scott is quickly escorted through the school by the principal and school staff. A class of youngsters is ushered into a large room and the first lady quickly engages them, asking questions about the books they like and how often they read. She then picks up two books and asks them to choose the one she will read to them; they vote by a show of hands. Majority rules. She smiles and casually remarks that is how a democracy works, too.
“Push yourself to read books that challenge you,” she says to the young students. “Keep a dictionary, look up words you don’t know and then use them because that’s how you remember them.”
Mrs. Scott is noticeably persistent in her encouragement. She later tells me that when she was a young girl, her family couldn’t afford books, so she relied on the library to indulge her love of reading.
“In fourth grade, I read all the biographies. I loved reading about other people’s lives,” she says, noting that she was currently reading a historical book about first families and, when she was growing up, her early inspiration was Jane Austen. “I loved learning new words and pushed myself to read harder books; and it helped me in school. That’s why I always encourage the kids.”
11 a.m. – Early lunch at Paisley Café
After a slight time change in the schedule, we head out for an early lunch at Paisley Café, a delightfully quaint spot that is popular with the mansion staff and just a half-mile from the governor’s mansion. As we walk in, we are led to a cozy round table with a privacy curtain in the back.
The first lady orders the Chicken Salad Salad (homemade chicken salad atop spring greens, toasted almonds and dried cherries). The conversation quickly turns to family. Mrs. Scott talks about her two daughters, Allison and Jordan, and three grandsons, Auguste, Quinton and Sebastian. She recounts how she would set aside an hour each night before bedtime to read to her daughters, and how they continued the tradition at an even earlier age with their own children. “Allison started reading to Auguste when he was 10 weeks old and did the same thing with Quinton,” says Mrs. Scott, adding that Quinton loves Thomas the Train books, popular for its familiar refrain: I think I can! I think I can! “I’ve got some new books for her and all the grandkids coming this weekend,” she adds.
After the plates are cleared and we make our way to the door, we’re greeted with a beaming smile from Kiersten Lee, the café’s founder and owner. The first lady embraces her and they chat at a rapid pace, as if they were longtime friends. Within minutes they discover Lee’s brother-in-law’s sister was once the hairstylist for Mrs. Scott’s mother in a small town in Alabama. “What are the chances?!” says Lee, who pulls out her cell phone and asks the first lady if she would take a group selfie with her. “Sure!” says Mrs. Scott, with a touch of Texas twang hinting at her Southern roots.
“She’s so humble, and when she talks to you, she’s so interested in you,” Lee later tells me. “She’s giving you hugs. She’s just lovely. She’s a class act.”
Lee says she was also pleasantly surprised to receive the Viva La Florida cookbook a week later, signed by the first lady. The collection of favorite recipes from first ladies of Florida was a nod to the quincentenary celebration of Florida last year. It was conceptualized by Mrs. Scott and produced by the nonprofit Florida Governor’s Mansion Foundation, dedicated to preserving state history.
“We had to go back in the archives to find out which recipes were probably the first ladies’ favorites and then we incorporated those,” says Mrs. Scott, noting her family recipe for Italian Cream Cake is included as well. “My kids love it, and I make it for special occasions as it takes about a half-day to make!” The cookbook project was funded by private donations and all proceeds go to support the Mansion Foundation.
Meanwhile, back at Paisley Café, Lee says the first lady has since been back for lunch. Lee remembers she ordered the same thing: Chicken Salad Salad.
1 p.m. – Greeting new moms at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital
At our next stop, Mrs. Scott swoops into Tallahassee Memorial Hospital like an elegant stork delivering her “Love.Read.Learn!” baby journal to parents of newborns. The scrapbook-style journal was created in partnership with the nonprofit Volunteer USA Foundation and contains reading tips, plus helpful information for new moms.
The first lady’s passion for children extends to those without families as well. Since taking on the role as first lady, she has brought many foster children to the mansion, inviting them to dinner, and doing what she can to help.
“We would sit and talk about their hopes, dreams and aspirations,” she says. “One young man wanted to be a sports broadcaster, so we arranged for him to spend a day with a sports broadcaster.”
Even before her husband became governor, Mrs. Scott volunteered with Liberty Youth Ranch in Bonita Springs, a safe haven for abused children. “I wanted to find a way to give back to the community and, after donating something to the ranch, I happened to see they needed interior designers,” she says. “I worked at the consignment shop doing the interior decorating and loved it. Rick could always tell when I had been there that day. It let your creative energies flow.”
The first lady’s passion for interior design began at an early age, as she recalls constantly rearranging her bedroom and then taking on other rooms of her childhood home. “Even now, I’ll take a day and change everything around,” she says. “You get inspired by things you see when you travel, or it could be just a feeling you want a room to have.”
2:30 p.m. – Tour of the governor’s mansion
Arriving back at the mansion, Mrs. Scott walks us through the private and public sides, which she was inspired to redecorate when they first moved in. The mansion has since received a complete makeover, thanks to private donations to the mansion foundation.
“It was built in 1956, and nothing had been done to it in 30 years,” Mrs. Scott says. “I shared with Rick that it would be nice to preserve the history of the Florida governor’s mansion and bring it back to its beauty.”
The first lady put a plan together, which was approved by the Governor’s Mansion Commission. “We wanted to give it a fresh face,” she says. “It was new paint, fabrics, draperies, new wallpaper. In the dining room, the Zuber wallpaper from France is the only one that remained.”
“Carole, we’ll need to fix this rug in here again; it scooches,” Mrs. Scott says to Carole Beck, the mansion’s curator, as we walk through the rooms.
“We had 300 people here last night,” she says, turning back to me. “Things get moved around all the time. And then we’ll adjust the rugs and they’ll be good for a while. I tend to tweak as I go.”
In keeping with the mansion’s Greek Revival style architecture and eighteenth-century design, Mrs. Scott hired a historical designer to help guide the redecorating process, particularly in the entrance hall, state dining room, reception room and state bedroom, which are considered historical areas.
“In the state bedroom, the fabrics were disintegrating, and we gave that room a whole new look,” she says. “We took down all of the heavy draperies that were keeping the light out and installed plantation shutters. I did it upstairs in the bedrooms first and then incorporated over here and people love it on the public side. It makes everything so much brighter.”
The stunning art dotting the walls are on loan from museums all around the state: Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota; Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville; Orlando Museum of Art; Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum of Art in Daytona Beach; and Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West.
“I took Carole with me and picked art that I thought would be appropriate for the governor’s mansion, but also art that I liked,” she says.
Walking into the Florida room, which is not considered a historic room, Mrs. Scott was able to show a little more of her personality. She replaced a broken couch, while adding a table and chairs, a bench and other accessories.
“I wanted the Florida room to say Florida,” she says. “I’m not matchy-matchy. You’ll see some aqua and green, and then I brought in the corals, the warm reds, the blue—colors you would associate with Florida.”
5:30 p.m. – Community Leaders Dinner, governor’s mansion
Dressed with impeccable style, the first lady welcomes each guest as they arrive at the governor’s mansion for a Community Leaders Dinner. The series of highly anticipated events began nearly two years ago as a way for the governor and first lady “to bring leaders together from all around the state,” Mrs. Scott says. “It’s networking, too, but the dinner is really just to thank them for what they’ve done for their communities and the state of Florida.”
The atmosphere is elegant yet relaxed, and the first lady sets the tone for the evening, welcoming everyone with a warm smile—and an encouraging nudge to mingle.
“I’d like each person to stand up, introduce yourself and say where you’re from so you know who you’re having dinner with,” Mrs. Scott announced to the attendees, which included a handful of Neapolitans. “You can share as much or as little as you want.”
The first lady speaks with such confidence and ease that one would never know she actually grew up with a paralyzing fear of public speaking. It stemmed from an incident in sixth grade, when she was ridiculed while giving a report in front of her class. It is an experience she has recounted many times publicly, and one she now sees as a positive. While she says she still gets nervous before having to speak in front of people, Mrs. Scott partly credits her husband for pushing her to step outside of her comfort zone.
“Rick always encourages me to do things I might not do otherwise, and it makes me a stronger person and gives me more self-confidence,” she says.
“She’s a gracious and elegant ambassador for Florida,” says acclaimed Florida artist Christopher Still, who was also seated at the first lady’s table at the dinner. His La Florida triptych paintings are on display at the entrance to the mansion. “A lot of people want her attention, and I was struck with her ability to address almost anything going on around her in a very thoughtful way,” Still adds. “You would not know that she had so many other things on her plate.”
Despite her dizzying schedule with few, if any, breaks to catch her breath, at the end of the evening Mrs. Scott still appears as fresh as an orange blossom in early spring.
As guests begin to trickle out of the mansion, the first lady is still chatting with several people at the door and enthusiastically smiling for candid snapshots. Her role as first lady is one she wears well, like a rare gown you try on for size and serendipitously becomes the perfect fit.
“I was coming from private life to public life, so I had no idea what this was like. You move to a new city, new house, new job—and there’s no job description,” she says. “The job is what you make of it, and I love my job. I always feel like I’m evolving.”
THE FIRST LADY’S LOVE OF NAPLES
Why Naples: We took a trip to Naples when our daughter was on spring break one year and fell in love with the town and its Midwest influence. The people are so warm and friendly. They want to figure out ways to give back to the community and make it a wonderful city.
There’s no place like home: We have a daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren in Naples, so we try to get back as often as possible. Our other daughter [and her family] live in Texas, and we’re working on them to move to Florida, too! In our home, everything is how we left it. Naples is home for us.
Favorite places to take the grandkids: We love to go to Food & Thought. We typically take our first grandson Auguste there. Our daughter Allison and son-in-law Pierre will join, along with their son Quinton. We like to visit the Naples Zoo, C’mon (Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples), Naples Botanical Garden and the Conservancy (of Southwest Florida).
Where she dines: Sea Salt, Campiello, Café Lurcat, Bleu Provence, and clubs including Naples Yacht Club and Port Royal Club, especially in season; we don’t have a lot of notice sometimes.