Sitting in a small office in the back of Bolivar’s Butler House, Teresa Parson chats comfortably with a longtime friend on the Thursday evening before her husband is sworn in as Missouri’s 57th governor. She takes a deep breath and seems at ease as the din of voices rises outside the door as guests gather for a fundraising event for Polk County Republican primary candidate Shirley Allison.
Butler House fills with people there to support their local candidate, but they also have another goal in mind -- to catch a few moments with Missouri’s soon-to-be first lady. When asked how she feels about the changes the week brought her and her family in her first interview about her new role, Teresa hesitates then says, “I’ve not had time to sit and really think about it, I’ll be real honest with you.”
But, there’s no hint of hesitation when it comes to her confidence in her husband Mike Parson’s ability to succeed in his new role. Primarily, she says she hopes Parson will help Missouri “heal and move forward.”’
“We both love people and being around people, and I think that's what’s important to do the job,” Teresa says. “Mike will work really well with both sides of the aisle. He always has. He’s known for that around the Capitol.”
Saying her husband met with House and Senate leaders from both parties after news broke about the transition in power, Teresa says “There’s no tension between them. He’ll listen to people. You’ve got to convince him you’re right, but he will listen to your side. And if you can convince him, he’ll change.”
Getting the call
What started out as a typical Tuesday at their Bolivar home turned into something altogether surprising last week as the couple learned former Gov. Eric Greitens had plans to announce his resignation that day. Following morning meetings at their home, Teresa says Mike stayed on the farm while she ran errands in Bolivar before heading to Springfield for a quick shopping trip.
“I had just stepped into the first store when I got the call,” Teresa says. “Mike said, ‘You need to come home.’ He said the colonel with the Highway Patrol called, and we need to head to Jeff City.”
Her initial reaction was shock. “When I got the call, I said, ‘Are you sure? How sure are you, Mike?’’ He said, ‘I’m very sure.’”
While rumors about Greitens’ resignation had swirled around Jefferson City, Teresa says “deep down, you really think it will never happen. And we were perfectly content with that. We had settled in. The lieutenant governor’s position pretty much filled the bill for us in a lot of ways.”
However, Teresa says her husband will continue to carry a torch for key issues he supported in his previous role, including tourism, agriculture and veterans affairs. She says his love of the lieutenant governor’s office won’t hinder his ability to fill the governor’s chair.
“He was prepared at any moment,” she says. “That’s part of the job description.”
Moving on up
During this year’s legislative session, Teresa says she’s spent the majority of her time in Bolivar.
“Mike’s gone long hours,” she says, “and this way I can go to the grandkids’ functions, go to lunch with friends.”
Teresa acknowledges things will be different for their entire family.
“It’ll be a huge change in our life for sure, and the kids’ lives, too,” she says.
When asked what she thinks their new life will look like, she says, “Right now, it’s hard to say. We don’t know. We’re learning a lot of things, and we don’t know how it’s going to affect our life. We’re going to try to make it as minimal as possible for our kids and grandkids.”
While the couple is required to live in Jefferson City, Teresa is quick to say Bolivar will always be home, and they will be coming back to Bolivar as much as they can. But, she says they’ll have a few new friends in tow.
“Mike will come back to the farm,” Teresa says. “In fact, he brought that up the other day in our security briefing, because he will have security assigned to him 24/7, and I will have security assigned to me 24/7.”
But she says that won’t stop them from spending time with the people they love the most, saying their five grandkids’ biggest question has always been, “But when will we see you?”
“You just have to have your priorities, and our priority is still going to be our kids and grandkids,” she said. “It may be changed a little bit where they make trips to Jeff City, so they can stay with us up there.”
Polk County roots
While Mike Parson grew up in Hickory County, moving to Bolivar later in life, Teresa says she’s been a Polk County girl her entire life with family still in the county. She graduated from Bolivar High School and spent her career as a banker, retiring from Mid-Missouri Bank in 2016.
“Mike and I met while I was working at the bank and he was running the gas station,” she says. Three months later, they were married. Laughing, Teresa says, “I always tell people, we were old enough at the time. We knew what we wanted.”
Both in their early 30s, Teresa says they’d both been previously married. She says their two kids — Kelly and Stephanie — were from Teresa’s previous marriage. Their father’s deceased, and they were so young,’ she says. “If you asked them, honestly, truly, Mike’s their dad. In their hearts, that’s the way it is. The kids don't think of him any other way.”
First lady’s focus
Much like in her personal life, Teresa says her priority as first lady will be children. When asked if she has a soft spot in her heart for kids, she says, “I’m afraid I do.” She says her primary platform will be JAG-Missouri. It stands for Jobs for American Graduates, and it’s for at-risk students not getting through high school, a lot of times at no fault of their own.
Calling it a wonderful program, she says the couple currently co-chairs Missouri's JAG board. In March, the Bolivar R-1 school board voted unanimously to adopt the program at no cost to the district. Teresa says Lebanon also recently added the program to its district.
“We’ve added nine schools this year,” she says. “We’re at 29, and our goal was to have 50 by the time we left the lieutenant governor’s office, so I want to bring that over to the governor’s office.”
According to a recent news release from Parson’s office, “JAG is dedicated to preventing dropouts among young people who have potential, but who are, for a variety of reasons, at risk for not graduating from high school.” The release said the graduation rate for JAG-Missouri students has been 95 percent or above in recent years.
Teresa says she never in a million years imagined the pair would take on the roles of governor and first lady when Parson began his political career as Polk County sheriff.
“We had never had a goal of any type in our life,” she says. When former Sheriff Charlie Simmons contacted Parson about running for Polk County’s top law enforcement officer upon Simmons’ retirement, Teresa says the couple hadn’t planned for the political life. But, she says Parson “enjoyed helping people.”
“He’s service-oriented,” she said. After 12 years serving as sheriff and deciding he wouldn’t run for office again, Teresa says her husband was again approached by someone heading out the door.
“Kenny Legan was leaving (the office of state representative), and they were talking at the gas station one day, and Kenny said, ‘Why don't you run? We need a good man in there,’” Teresa says. “December 31 of one year, he was Polk County sheriff. The next morning, he was a state representative.”
She says a similar situation happened when Delbert Scott reached his term limit as state senator.
However, Parson was motivated by something different as he ran for lieutenant governor, she says.
“When politics got so dirty in the state of Missouri, during the Tom Schweich year, Mike, being the person he is, wanted to try to change it all and make it better,” Teresa says. “He thought doing it on a statewide basis, he would have a way to do that.”
Through it all, Teresa says one thing has kept the couple grounded -- prayer.
“I don’t know how you could stay grounded without prayer,” she says. “There’s so much negative things in politics anymore. If you don’t have prayer, I don’t know how you could be in politics.”