During a Sunday afternoon forum at the State Historical Building, the children of four former Iowa governors talked about growing up in the spotlight.
Marcus Branstad, former Governor Terry Branstad’s youngest son, was born after his dad became governor and Terrace Hill, the governor’s mansion, was his first home. “I grew up in the mansion. It was my house entirely. I had really no knowledge that we would lose it at some point or somebody else would be moving in,” Branstad said.
Marcus looked on Terrace Hill as an eight-acre playground and that included playing tricks on people who took tours of the historic mansion. “I would hide underneath a bed on the second floor, which is known as the VIP room and tours would go through there and they would stop because there’s historical significance to the room,” Branstad said. “I would hide under the bed and for the unsuspecting tourist, I would reach out and grab their ankles.”
Marcus Branstad’s older brother, Eric, was seven when their dad was elected governor. “The first day we moved into the house and I remember (discovering) cable television. Lake Mills, Iowa, on the farm, did not have cable television and from a seven-year-old’s eyes, that’s something really cool,” Eric Branstad said.
Eric, who is now 31 and working for the Republican Party of Iowa, said he now appreciates how hard his dad worked and what a privilege it was to live in Terrace Hill. “It felt normal to us because that’s really all we really knew,” Eric Branstad said.
Robert Ray was first elected governor in 1968 on his daughter Randi’s 14th birthday. Randi Ray spent her teenage years living in the governor’s mansion that is four blocks west of Terrace Hill where the Branstads lived. “My parents were mom and dad and when people would ask me what it was like to be the governor’s kid it was like probably not a lot different than what it was like for you to grow up,” Ray said.
She doesn’t remember thinking her life was much different. “It was kind of my dad’s business, you know. That’s what he did and that’s what his passion was,” Ray said. “I don’t know as a child how in-tune I was to all of that. I know the campaign victory parties…were smoky, not very fun places to be…as a kid, being dragged in, having your picture taken.”
Phyllis Hughes was 10 years old the night back in 1962 when her dad, Harold Hughes, won his first race for governor and she remembers that smoke-filled room, too. “It had gotten very late and I was nodding off and the smoke was so thick you couldn’t see across the room,” Hughes said. “I remember waking up to this din, this shouting…and someone said my father had been elected…I just had this sense that nothing would be the same.”
Hughes remembers moving into what was then the governor’s mansion and thinking it was the biggest house she’d ever seen. “I had no idea what was in store for us. We were just a working class family from Ida Grove, Iowa, and I had no idea how to be a governor’s kid at all,” Hughes says. “Talk about learning to swim by being thrown off Niagra Falls — that’s what it was like for me.”
Dee Wittmack, the daughter of Governor Norman Erbe, was 13 in 1961 when her family moved into what was then the governor’s mansion — a large home that’s four blocks west of where the current governor’s mansion is located. A couple of years later, at age 15, she was standing at the back door, waiting for her date to kiss her good night. “All of a sudden, out of the shadows, comes my father’s security officer. At that time, I was called Dee Dee. He said ‘Dee Dee, would you like some help here?'” Wittmack recounted. “I remember being absolutely devastated.”
Her most embarassing moment, though, came when her dad — the governor — took her to the statehouse parking lot to teach her to drive. “We’d been there about an hour and I’d been driving around in circles,” Wittmack said. “He said ‘Why don’t you pull into this parking place?’ so I very carefully pulled into the parking place and we turned off the car and he said ‘Okay, now you’re going to turn the car back on and we’re going to back up’ so I turned the car back on, put the car into what I thought was reverse. It was drive and we went right into the light pole right in front of us.”
The two adult sons of current Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack did not appear at the forum.