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Book by Mo. first lady examines faith, lives of her predecessors

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (BP)–Being a Christian and being a Baptist help define everything Jean Carnahan does as Missouri’s first lady, including her latest project — writing a book.
The wife of Gov. Mel Carnahan wrote “If Walls Could Talk: The Story of Missouri’s First Families.” She also personally directed the design of the book, which is a pictorial and biographical history of the families who have lived in the Missouri Governor’s Mansion since it was built in 1871.
The author has been working on the book since her husband first was inaugurated in 1993. Suitable for coffee-table display, the 448-page book is a painstakingly researched academic history of the historic home and the politics of those who occupied it.
Jean Carnahan grew up in Fountain Memorial Baptist Church (now Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church) in Washington, D.C. She met her future husband through Baptist Training Union; he attended Fountain Memorial after moving to Washington as a child. Gov. Carnahan is the son of the late Missouri Congressman A.S.J. Carnahan.
In her research, Carnahan often ran across information about the faith backgrounds of first families. Besides the Carnahans, who are actively involved members of First Baptist Church in Rolla, three other Baptist families have occupied the Governor’s Mansion.
The first Baptist governor to live in the mansion was Charles Hardin, a son of a minister and nephew of Missouri Baptist statesman William Jewell. Hardin’s wife, Mary, shocked Jefferson City society upon her husband’s inauguration in 1875 by breaking the tradition of lavish parties instituted by her Catholic predecessor, Virginia Lard Woodson. The governor’s wife did away with dancing, alcohol and even instrumental music at mansion events.
In contrast to the Hardins were progressive leaders Warren and Betty Hearnes, who served as governor and first lady from 1965-73 and who remain members of First Baptist Church in Charleston. And then there was Joseph Folk, who was governor from 1905-09. Though he was elected because of a good reputation he had built by rooting out corruption as a St. Louis circuit attorney, he soon turned his zeal to less-popular crusades.
“He did a lot of things that made people mad,” Jean Carnahan said. “He closed down the racetracks and the German beer gardens.” Carnahan said the latter particularly irked voters of German descent, because the beer gardens traditionally served as meeting places and social halls for the “respectable German families.”
The author found some governors more appealing than others. “I think I was more drawn to the ones who were not quite so dogmatic, but the ones who actually changed things that were wrong — who improved prison conditions, who changed things that were wrong for children, who promoted education.”
Carnahan has used her influence to bring attention to child advocacy issues.
Being Missouri’s first lady has caused her to grow in faith, she confirmed. “Since I’ve been in this job, I’ve relied a lot more on prayer than ever before.”
She is thankful for her Baptist upbringing and exposure to God’s Word at a young age. “I remember growing up that I was fascinated with the Bible. I read it, I underlined it, I memorized it. And now, when I get into situations where I need that strength, those passages come back to me; I remember them.
“So, I’ve always told my children that — memorize the Bible; learn it when you’re young.”
Another Missouri Baptist played a major role in the project. Jim Dyke, a member of Union Hill Baptist Church in Holts Summit, painted murals for the introduction to each chapter. The murals depict the governor’s family discussed in each chapter, along with events in Missouri history contemporary to their periods in the Mansion.
Dyke worked closely with. Carnahan on the project. He said he enjoyed learning more about Missouri history through his involvement. “It was a great experience. It was challenging to meet the needs of someone else rather than just painting what I like to paint.”
Carnahan’s next writing project is a children’s storybook that will be set in the Governor’s Mansion. “It’s about a mouse who lives over here on an island in the [Missouri] River, and he comes up to visit the mansion,” she noted, taking pains not to reveal too much of the plot.
She has an idea for another book after that. “I’d like to write a book titled, ‘Growing up Baptist,’ because I think growing up Baptist leaves this indelible mark on you,” she said. “Some of it has a certain amount of humor to it — and there are just some things that you never get over! I think it would be worth interviewing some people about that — what their experiences were — and recording some of that.”
“If Walls Could Talk” is available for $50 at the Governor’s Mansion and at bookstores across the state. Proceeds benefit Missouri Mansion Preservation Inc. The book also can be purchased via mail (include $6 for shipping and handling) at “If Walls Could Talk,” PO Box 1133, Jefferson City, MO 65102 or on the Internet at www.missourimansion.org.

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  • Rob Marus