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Once in a Lifetime - Reflections of a Mississippi First Lady

Once in a Lifetime

Reflections of a Mississippi First Lady

By Elise Varner Winter
Edited by JoAnne Prichard Morris
Hardcover : 9781628462197, 292 pages, 32 b&w illustrations, May 2015

The firsthand account of a governor’s wife who transformed her position from mansion hostess to a more meaningful role in state government


Once in a Lifetime reveals the broad range of Elise Varner Winter's activities as first lady of Mississippi during the term of her husband, Governor William F. Winter (1980–1984). Drawn from her personal journal, which she kept daily, this account includes the frustrating moments as well as the exhilarating ones, from keeping house to visiting the White House. The position of a state's first lady is one of the most public of roles. Yet few people know what a first lady actually does. In Elise Winter's memoir, her sense of history, her talent, and her perseverance to record her activities and observations provide a unique opportunity for the reader to understand what life in the Mississippi Governor's Mansion was really like on a daily basis.

This book reveals her traditional roles—planner of elegant dinners, sophisticated hostess, hands-on gardener, and steward of the Mansion and its historic collection of antique furniture and decorative arts. But she emerged as a modern first lady, intensely interested in public education and in the state penitentiary, for which she developed several important initiatives. She recounts fascinating events from Governor Winter's administration, its tensions and its accomplishments, such as passage of the Education Reform Act, a success in which Elise Winter played an indispensable role. Many of the issues of thirty years ago remain critical today—insufficient funding for education, budget deficits, prison overcrowding, and the need for prison reform.

Elise Winter observes everyone and everything with a fresh eye for detail and describes them all with honesty, clarity, and simplicity. Her observations reflect her intellect and insight, as well as her sense of humor. This is a woman's story, a human story, about hopes and doubts, about setting high standards and sometimes feeling inadequate, and about the imperative of continual efforts to make her state a better place for all who live there.


"This absorbing book gives us a unique insight into some of the decisions and events that have helped move us toward a more just and hopeful future in a state that I still call home."

- Myrlie Evers-Williams

"Elise Winter served as first lady of Mississippi with grace and wisdom three decades ago, and it is a testament to her character that she and former Governor William Winter continue to work tirelessly in the best interests of their state. Like her husband, Elise Winter has a strong sense of history—combined with the gift of good humor—and these attributes are reflected in Once in a Lifetime, a recollection of her years in the Governor's Mansion, from the exuberance over the passage of the Education Reform Act to the agony of a state execution."

- Curtis Wilkie, author of The Fall of the House of Zeus and Assassins, Eccentrics, Politicians and Other Persons of Interest

"Once in a Lifetime vividly reveals numerous activities that involved the Winters' quest for a better Mississippi. While doing so, the book also quietly reveals Elise Winter's intellect, kindness, strength, generosity, faith, loyalty, and admirable character."

- Carolyn Vance Smith, founder and co-chairperson, Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration

"First Lady Elise Winter has written an inspirational story of a remarkable life and family. As you read her words, you will feel that she is seated next to you or across the table enjoying a casual visit. Integrity, loyalty, sacrifice, courage, dedication, and love flow quite naturally from the modesty, elegance, and humility of this wonderful woman. Few people make the life-enriching contributions to mankind other than the few truly honorable public servants. Elise Winter has given us an honest account, eloquently presented, of her family as well as her public life. All of us are in her debt."

- Robert C. Khayat, chancellor emeritus, University of Mississippi