November 25, 2002 - Lacrosse Tribune: Tunisia RPCV Jessica Doyle: Wisconsin's next first lady nervous about her new role

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Tunisia: Peace Corps Tunisia : The Peace Corps in Tunisia: November 25, 2002 - Lacrosse Tribune: Tunisia RPCV Jessica Doyle: Wisconsin's next first lady nervous about her new role

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Tunisia RPCV Jessica Doyle: Wisconsin's next first lady nervous about her new role

Tunisia RPCV Jessica Doyle: Wisconsin's next first lady nervous about her new role

Thrust into the spotlight: Wisconsin's next first lady nervous about her new role

By ANITA CLARK / Lee Newspapers¯
MADISON - A quiet person who likes to work behind the scenes is about to be thrust onto center stage as Wisconsin's 43rd first lady.

Jessica Laird married Jim Doyle nearly 36 years ago, when they were college seniors. Now he's been elected governor and will be inaugurated Jan. 6, pushing his family further into public life.

It's a startling prospect for Jessica Doyle, who confessed to being a bit overwhelmed shortly after the Nov. 5 election. But friends and co-workers say she will tackle her new responsibilities with calm competence.

What is the role of the first lady in Wisconsin?

"People understand that in this day and age you don't have to give up everything to be a good first lady," said Sue Ann Thompson, whose husband, Tommy, was governor for nearly 14 years.

She stayed in Elroy, Wis., kept her teaching job and raised three children after her husband was elected. Later, after a battle with breast cancer, she became passionate about women's health and used her position to help advance the cause.

First ladies occasionally have been controversial. Dorothy Knowles in 1967 proposed to repaint the governor's elaborate conference room in beige, even though it had been exquisitely decorated in Venetian Renaissance style. Alarmed preservationists got a law passed to protect the Capitol.

'Don't try to change'
¯Do these veteran first ladies have any advice for Jessica Doyle?

"I don't have any advice specifically because I think every first lady has to decide what she wants to do with the position and reach her own comfort level," said Laurie McCallum, wife of outgoing Gov. Scott McCallum.

Instead, she invited Doyle for coffee last week to chat about the first lady's responsibilities and her role in the foundation that supports the Governor's Mansion in Maple Bluff.

"Don't try to change because you won't ring true to yourself," Thompson advised. "Go withwhatever your passion is because that's what you'll be best at."

Like Thompson, Doyle has spent her career in education. She has been learning coordinator since 1992 at Cherokee Middle School, although she took a leave this year for the campaign.

A learning coordinator operates like the principal's right hand, taking care of everything from team planning to locker assignments to test schedules. Her goal is to help children learn.

If that means finding warm coats for a family from Africa, or boosting the confidence of a shy seventh-grader, Doyle has done it.

"She has an unbelievable work ethic," said Mary Ramberg, a former principal of Cherokee. "She'll do all the grunt work as well as the thinking and planning kinds of things."

Doyle has a reputation as a tireless worker who cares about each child.

"I think she knew every single kid by name," said Amy Keleny, scheduling coordinator at Cherokee, which has nearly 600 students.

The Doyle boy

¯Doyle was born July 24, 1945, the daughter of Richard and Pat Laird. Her uncle Mel Laird was a Republican congressman, and secretary of defense in the Nixon Administration from 1969 to 1973. Her family moved from Marshfield to Madison when she was 6.

She and Jim Doyle graduated in 1963 from West High School, where she was homecoming queen. They knew each other, and even double-dated, but she headed off to Northwestern University near Chicago and he enrolled at Stanford University in California.

Still, the Doyle boy in high school must have made an impression, because the couple dated during school vacations. They transferred to UW-Madison to be together, married in December 1966, graduated in the spring and joined the Peace Corps in June. They spent two years in Tunisia.

They returned to Massachusetts for Jim Doyle's law degree, then moved to Arizona to work with Navajos.

"It just seemed so natural," she said. "That's one thing the Peace Corps does. It changes your perspective and makes you realize we have so much."

They wanted to start a family but "it just wasn't happening." In February 1975, they adopted a baby boy and named him Augustus.

They couldn't find a midsized university town they liked better than Madison and returned in August 1975. He opened a law office; she got a master's degree in educational administration and taught seventh-graders at Jefferson Middle School.

In 1976, Jim Doyle ran for district attorney, the three of them campaigning with Gus' stroller stuffed with leaflets. A Democrat, Jim Doyle served three terms as county prosecutor and, later, three terms as attorney general before running for governor.

Diverse family¯

In September 1978, the Doyles adopted a second baby boy and named him Gabriel. Like his brother, he is African-American. Mixed-race families were less common then, but Madison has always been accepting of her family, Doyle said.

Doyle shared her experiences with teen-agers and living in an all-male household with her co-worker Keleny, the mother of five sons.

"She had good sound advice on those rough teen-age years," Keleny said.

Jessica Doyle was delighted when two of her Jefferson pupils, now adults, found her campaigning this fall at Lambeau Field and told her they had become teachers.

Indeed, the magic of teaching and learning is the most consistent theme of her life.

Doyle treats students with tact and respect and they return it, colleagues say. When she knew children needed warm clothing, she brought in a son's outgrown sweat shirts and made it sound like she needed to get rid of them.

Students who accepted them "would feel like they were doing Mrs. Doyle a favor," Keleny said.

Determined, devoted¯

Friends describe Doyle as decisive, determined and devoted to her husband, sons and three-year-old grandson, Asiah.

"She's very good about looking at a situation, seeing what needs to be done and getting it all accomplished," her friend Elson said. "She is a person who pulls things together at many levels."

Doyle is loyal. She remembers birthdays. She shares time with her mother, Pat Laird Thomas, who lives in Nakoma, and her mother-in-law, Ruth Doyle, who lives at Attic Angels. Even on Election Day, she called a friend who was ill.

When she's stressed or agitated, she takes a deep breath.

Jessica Doyle's big blue eyes seem to widen as she contemplates the unknowns of life as the governor's wife.

She'd like to work on significant statewide projects, probably involving public education and literacy. While campaigning statewide, she missed Cherokee so much she added school visits to her schedule.

"If anything kept me going during those long campaign hours and that crazy schedule, it was thinking of a way to strengthen public education in the state," she said. "That's not only tied to the campaign issues, that's where my heart is."

Anita Clark is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.

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Story Source: Lacrosse Tribune

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