South Dakota’s First Lady looks back
PIERRE — When Dennis Daugaard was first elected governor in 2011, his wife Linda Daugaard was told to take things a little easy for the first six months of her husband’s term.
“When I went to First Spouses’ School, which yes, they do have one, they said not to commit to anything the first six months of your time,” she said.
It was advice the First Lady promptly disregarded as soon as she found South Dakota’s children were in need of some attention.
“I reflected back on the number of kids that came into the library in third-fourth-and fifth-grade,” Daugaard said. “And they were using electronic devices and didn’t really want to read anymore.”
From that point on, Daugaard made it a point to visit as many elementary schools as possible and focus on making reading enjoyable for kids specifically in third- through fifth-grades.
“Reading gets a little more difficult at that age,” she said. “Plus nobody wants to go read to third-fourth-and fifth-graders, they all want to read to kindergarten, first- and second-graders, so I would tell them (the kids) I would just pass by those lower elementary rooms and just want to be with you, so their chests kind of inflated and they thought they were pretty big deals.”
Daugaard spent her time reinforcing the fundamentals of reading and making books fun and interesting for them. She would collect books from a school on one side of the state and take them to a school on the other side of the state, then the kids would get to find on a map were these new books came from. She would also tell the kids, that not every book they read needed to be a chore.
“You can abandon a book,” she would say. “Just because you pick out a book from the library or start reading a book that you don’t like, you don’t need to continue doing that, you need to find a book that you really like.”
Another area Daugaard focused on within her first year was the infant mortality rate in South Dakota.
“Babies were born healthy, nothing wrong with them, and we had 80 to 90 babies dying their first year,” Daugaard said.
With help from the Department of Health, Daugaard led a task force to suss out the cause for such staggering numbers. She said that one of the major factors that contributed to that number was unsafe sleeping conditions for infants.
“When a new mom was ready to leave the hospital, they would say, ‘Tell me were baby’s going to sleep,’ and some would describe a drawer that they pulled out that they were going to put the baby in, or an area in another bedroom in a child’s bed not a crib.”
Daugaard said that along with a “Cribs for Kids” initiative, which has already given away 9,350 cribs to new moms in South Dakota, the task force also began a campaign to educate parents about the best way to keep infants safe during sleep.
“ABC. Alone, on their Back, in a Crib,” She said. “All the taskforce members jumped on board with that philosophy, and that’s what we’ve been preaching now for eight years.”
Daugaard said the program has been largely successful.
“Being such a small state, one or two infant deaths and the number jumps up again,” she said. “I keep getting reminded that it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon and there are new moms every day, so we need to keep that message going over, and over, and over.”
Daugaard said she has enjoyed her time in the Governor’s Mansion.
“Being able to show it off,” she said. “We’ve had people from other countries come and visit us during the summer when we do tours. I think that’s been a lot of fun.”
Daugaard said the thing that surprised her the most about being the governor’s wife was how even the mundane parts of life become public spectacle.
“Whether you go to the grocery store and people look at what you’re buying,” she gave as an example. “Or what you do at the ‘Y’ or how you’re working out, or just your lifestyle.”
There’s another aspect of being a governor’s wife she found surprisingly difficult to get used to.
“I’ve had to hold my tongue a lot more than I thought,” she said with a laugh. “When you come from a large family, everybody talks at one time, you share all your opinions, and I’ve needed to just hold back a little bit more.”
Now, with a new governor slated to be elected in November, as her husband is restricted by term limits from seeking election again, Daugaard is looking forward to other luxuries of life in the private sector.
“Oh I think just going back to the farm and living a regular life, she said. “Wearing shorts and jeans more often probably.”
Daugaard had some sage advise for the incoming governor and his or her spouse: “I know both the candidates are married, and I think doing the job and living the life together has to be a priority because it would be really difficult to do it alone and you just need that support from that spouse. One thing that Dennis and I have done all eight years is have our weekly scheduling meetings together, and I think that has really helped with our relationship and our families as well.”
When asked about how she thought Republican Kristi Noem might fare as South Dakota’s first female governor, Daugaard said, “I think South Dakota would do great with a female governor.”
However, she was quick not to discount the merits of the Democratic candidate Billie Sutton.
“Both candidates are real strong,” she said.
Daugaard said she’s noticed a growth in the people of South Dakota in her eight years as first lady.
“I think there’s a lot more awareness. People are more engaged and they’re more willing to jump on board with different initiatives and just say, ‘You know we can accomplish this,’” she said. “Whether it’s infant mortality or the opioid crisis or whatever, people are willing to step up and help out. … South Dakotans don’t just sit back and let someone else take care of problems.”
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