Elise and William Winter

William Winter doesn’t take himself too seriously. Just ask him about the time he asked his wife Elise to marry him – at a baseball game. “It took her four years to say yes,” he says with a grin. Why? “I think she did some checking into my background.” Maybe she figured out she’d be

“It took her four years to say yes,” he says with a grin. Why? “I think she did some checking into my background.” Maybe she figured out she’d be with a lifelong politician? Six decades later she notes: “I often remind him, that 62 years, most of it in politics, ‘ought to count for a lot.”

Governor Winter celebrates his 90th birthday next month and 65 years in public service. In Mississippi, he has served as  State Representative, State Tax collector, State Treasurer, Lt. Governor and Governor (1980-1984). “I’m thankful I have had the privilege of living in the time in which I have lived,” he says from his Fondren home. “It’s been the most fascinating, interesting and challenging era in human history.”

From a young age, Governor Winter knew he was meant to be a politician. His wife, Elise Varner Winter, says she knew what the Governor was meant to do, too. “When you become a legislator as an Ole Miss law student…” she trails.  “I mean, 12 students ran and 11 were elected? They really planned to turn the world around, but it works slowly.” She says he’s been a politician as long as she’s known him. “And I supported it.”

Governor Winter’s and Mrs. Winter’s  contributions to this state and to society as a whole are unmatched. His efforts to bring racial reconciliation and educational reform to Mississippi helped bring this state into a modern era. For 50 years, Governor Winter has served on the board of the Department of Archives and History, acting as chairman for 30 years.  He continues to work to better historical preservation, helping to bring the Museum of Mississippi History and Civil Rights Museum to a common destination.

Mrs. Winter surmises her role in the Governor’s Mansion was that of glorified house keeper. But history begs to differ. In charge of bringing the Governor’s Mansion into a restored state while in office, she supervised the renovation and repair of the historical area of the people’s home.  And her “home” work record would not be incomplete without her most significant role: the founder of Habitat For Humanity/Metro Jackson, now 25 years old. She also served six years on the international Habitat for Humanity board. “People deserve to have a decent place to live,” she says. Five hundred houses later in the Jackson area alone, the lifetime board member continues working with the charity today. Mrs. Winter sees Habitat not only as building a home,  but building a community.

She also served six years on the international Habitat for Humanity board. “People deserve to have a decent place to live,” she says. Five hundred houses later in the Jackson area alone, the lifetime board member continues working with the charity today. Mrs. Winter sees Habitat not only as building a home,  but building a community.

Governor Winter is his wife’s biggest fan. “Elise has helped to interpret this state to those outside Mississippi and to fellow Mississippians in its best light, showing its best qualities, sharing her own sense of public service,” he told us.

The Governor hopes he, too, has helped direct positive thoughts toward the state. “I hope I have contributed the ideal of using public service, in the offices I have had, particularly the governor’s office, to bring Mississippi further into the mainstream of American life. Mississippians have looked down on themselves and shorted themselves in terms of what they can accomplish. I hope I have helped lift the sights of people as a state and as individuals.”

They both believe their lifetime has been part of a duty to their fellow man. “We’re believers in the social contract,” the governor says.  By virtue of living in this free society, we have an obligation to help each other. We are not islands.” Part of that duty, he says, lies in public service and in simply treating everyone fairly.

The Winters say they hope people understand they are not impressed with themselves. “We’re plain people who have had the good fortune to be able to do some things we wanted to do and perhaps make contributions, maybe in ways we don’t know about,” Mrs. Winter tells us.  “I hope we will be remembered as having tried to nudge things in the right direction, understanding all along you never reach that goal you strive for, but nudging where our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren will have a quality of life better than ours.”

Governor Winter On…

Education
2012 marks the 30th anniversary of the passage of one of Winter’s proudest achievements: the Education Reform Act of Mississippi. Among other things, the legislation made public kindergarten mandatory and raised standards for attendance and student and teacher performance.

“I don’t think Mississippi can achieve its promise without a highly educated citizenry. We’ve had many gifted, well educated people provide national leadership. But there’s also too large a number who have not had the opportunity to use their human talents as well as they could have without an adequate education. It’s still a huge challenge. My most important contribution has been in bringing the importance of education to top priority for everyone in the state.”

Racial Reconciliation
“We’ve come an unbelievably long way. If you’d have asked me 50 years ago where we would be, I could not possibly have imagined the progress. To go from total social and educational segregation to where we are now, I believe we can call ourselves the most racially integrated state in the country. That’s not to say we’re where we need to be.”

“The process by which we understand we are one people; we really should not regard ourselves as different races. We’re all members of the human race. One race. To use diversity, the cultural and ethnic diversity we have… if we use that in the right way and intertwine the strengths that each culture brings to society, I think we would have the ideal structure in Mississippi… of a multi-racial, multi-cultural society, where without forfeiting our individuality or our own culture, (we) use the double, triple strength that comes from having several cultures living together, but respecting each other’s ideas and beliefs… not putting anyone down, not saying one is better, but finding strength and inspiration in those life experiences.”

“In terms of our own family: our three daughters came through public schools in Mississippi. I can tell you that they have been better prepared, I think, to live in a racially diverse society than if they had not had that experience. They feel at home in any company. They are not awkward in a company that involves all kinds of ethnic, racial and religious groups. It has contributed not only to their social and financial success but a sense of who they are and their ability to do what I think every human has the duty to do: to move toward a society where everyone is accorded dignity and respect.”

Related: Winters Recount Life at the Mansion

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