Jeanette Herbert: Meet Utah's future first lady
Orem » Her children refer to her as Miss Fix-it, and Jeanette Herbert admits the nickname fits.
"The tools are all mine," she laughs. "If Gary wants a tool, he has to ask me where it's at because he doesn't know. Usually, he'll just say, 'Fix it.' "
And she does -- from leaky faucets to broken sprinklers and malfunctioning appliances. She remodeled the fireplace in the Herbert home last winter and plans to knock out a wall soon to enlarge the family room.
"I think a lot of women are just afraid to try because they think it is going to be too hard," Herbert says. "And so many things are so easy."
With her husband, now second-in-command, poised to become Utah's 17th governor, Herbert's can-do, hands-on attitude is about to be applied in new ways as she assumes the accompanying role of first lady.
She's moved beyond the initial nervousness, the sleepless nights of anticipation, that came after the unexpected news that Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. had been tapped to become the nation's ambassador to China.
"You just kind of put it into a positive light and think, 'OK, you have the opportunity now to do something and maybe make a difference somewhere,' " Herbert says.
Beauty queen » As it turns out, Jeanette Herbert has a knack for making the most of unexpected opportunities.
Born in Preston, Idaho, to "Bish" and Bonnie Snelson, Herbert is the third of six children. She grew up in Pocatello; Milford, Utah; and, from first grade on, Springville, where her father managed J.C. Penney stores. Her parents, she says, set the do-it-yourself example.
"I honestly did not know there was such a thing as a repairman until I was about 12, and I was at a friend's and a repairman came into the home," Herbert says.
Growing up, she developed other talents, too.
Herbert is, she admits with a "Who tattled?" laugh, a former Miss Springville.
A girlfriend who wanted to make a run for the crown didn't want to do it alone and talked Herbert into being a contestant, too.
"Then I won. So there went our friendship, but oh well!" She laughs again. And quickly adds: "No, really, we still remained really good friends."
Then, as now, the competition was based 50 percent on contestant's performance in an interview, 25 percent on talent and 25 percent on beauty.
All these years later, she still has those beauty-queen looks. Herbert is trim and tan, the result of days spent playing "hit and giggle golf" with friends. She has an electric smile and hazel eyes; she wears her dark hair in a short, no-fuss style ideal for a woman on the go.
For her pageant talent, Herbert, then 18, displayed several of her paintings -- she began to draw as a child and continued with art lessons in high school -- and sang a song she had composed about them.
Herbert's interview question?
"It had to do with women working outside the home," says Herbert.
It was 1968, and the second wave of the Women's Movement was sweeping the nation. That year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled it illegal for newspapers to run gender-segregated help wanted ads, and appeals courts overturned state laws limiting jobs that women could hold.
Herbert's answer: "Because my mother had always been at home, I just felt it's important, if you can do it, to spend time at home," Herbert says, articulating a philosophy she still holds. "I think that kids are able to develop with a lot better sense of values . . . when they have a parent spending more time there."
But life, as she knows firsthand, often offers up a different reality.
'I just saw the car.' » This is the Herberts' love story.
After high school, Herbert enrolled at Utah Technical College (now Utah Valley University) to pursue a secretarial degree -- which, she adds, "I really hated and never really did anything with."
She also worked as a drive-up window teller at an Orem bank, where Gary was a customer. He spotted her one day and asked a teller he knew to line them up.
As soon as Gary Herbert walked out, the friend came over and asked Herbert if she had seen him. Herbert hadn't. The friend then pointed out the window and said, "Well, that's him driving away," Herbert remembers.
"He was driving this new [Pontiac] GTO, which was the hot car at the time. And I said, 'Oh, is that his car?' She said yeah, I think so. I said, sure, I will go out with him,'" she says, rolling out that laugh. "I didn't see him. I just saw the car. A little shallow at the time, but oh well!"
On their first date, Gary brought a newspaper, tossed it to her as she got in the GTO and told her to pick a movie. She picked "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
Seven months later they married. The Herberts, parents of six children ranging in age from 37 to 25 and grandparents of 9½, celebrated their 39th anniversary on July 3.
Not long after their sixth child was born, the couple smacked into economic hardships that might sound familiar to today's young families.
"My husband was in real estate and it was when interest rates, in the early 1980s, went sky high; nothing was selling," Herbert says. "He basically approached me and said, 'You might have to go back to work.'"
After years as a homemaker and mother, she had one thought: "What do I do with all my children?"
Herbert's solution was to open a day-care center, which allowed her to take the children to work -- and, when they were older, put them to work.
The Kids Connection day care in Orem opened in 1985, and Herbert ran it for 23 years; she also operated a drop-in day care center called K.C.'s Kids Club.
"It turned out to be a great business," she says. "I love working with kids."
Herbert often found herself mentoring parents, pulling books off her well-stocked shelves and offering advice from her own experiences. A common subject: What to do with out-of-control children.
"I saw a lot of parents that were very frustrated because they didn't feel like they had the skills that they needed," Herbert says. "We really tried to work a lot on the value system in our day-care center because it was something I just saw more and more was lacking."
That is, kindness, respect, obedience, listening -- "things that carry on into our adult lives."
All qualities, friends say, Herbert reflects in her own life. Lorelie Andrus, who has lived next door to the Herberts in two different locations since 1974, says Herbert is "exactly what she appears to be.
"What she does really does reflect her values," Andrus says. "She's really an extremely generous person. She'll give up a lot of time for people, sharing her talents."
She is, another friend says, first with a hand up, offering to bring a homecooked meal, to tidy up a yard for an ailing neighbor, to help with a bridal shower.
"Reaching out and serving people, she will be excellent at that," says Darolyne Childs, who has known Herbert for 24 years.
The unexpected call » Herbert sold the day-care businesses two years ago as demands of her husband's job and her desire to devote time to family grew. In its place, home remodeling and sewing projects, a passion, have multiplied.
Herbert throws an annual Halloween party for the family and makes a costume for each grandchild. Last year, she and Gary came as Sonny and Cher, whose song "I Got You Babe" happens to be the couple's best karoake tune.
On Sundays, the entire family -- and sometimes in-laws, too -- gathers for dinner at the Herbert home. Jeanette does the cooking; Gary, with the help of his sons, does the cleanup.
Will the governor continue to get Sunday dish duty?
"He's still a husband, too," Herbert laughs.
Table talk inevitably circles around to politics.
Herbert said Gary brought up his interest in public service, triggered when he was a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Washington, D.C. area., when they were dating.
Gary Herbert lost his first bid for a City Council seat but was later appointed to fill a vacant spot on the Utah County Commission, a post he held for 14 years, serving as chairman. As the wife of a county commissioner, Herbert attended events, dinners and parades with her husband.
"It kind of brought me out of my shell," says Herbert. "There would be times we'd sit at a table with people I didn't know and the next thing I knew Gary was up and out talking to people. I learned to make small talk and now it is a natural thing."
Herbert needed convincing when her husband bid on the governorship, initially as Huntman's opponent in the 2004 election.
She created an "enormous comfort zone and I was really enjoying it" after her husband partnered with Huntsman as lieutenant governor.
Herbert figured she had a few years to prepare for another gubernatorial race.
And then the phone rang on May 15. As Herbert caught snatches of the conversation between her husband and Huntsman, her stomach went "tighter and tighter.
"Gary walked into the [family] room, and we just kind of looked at each other, put our arms around each other and had a few emotional moments," she says.
The jitters are gone, and Herbert is beginning to think about the move to the Governor's Mansion -- they will use their Orem home as a weekend refuge -- and for the projects she'll tackle as first lady.
She lists as possibilities battling pornography, underage drinking and child abuse.
"Child abuse is one of the issues I dealt with at the day care that was just heartbreaking," Herbert says.
Herbert also draws on her past when she says she would like to help parents develop skills they need to raise their children.
Whatever Herbert does, she'll be great at it, says Childs, her long-time walking partner.
"She has a lot of common sense," says Childs. "She sees a problem and she can figure out a way to fix it really quickly."
» Herbert ran a day care business for 23 years.
» Her family includes Carmen Rasmussen, an American Idol finalist, and Ben Cahoon, a slotback for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.
» She is an accomplished seamstress who makes bedding and Halloween costumes for her grandchildren.
» She loves karoake and her best song, performed with husband Gary, is "I Got You Babe" by Sonny & Cher.
» She is known for doing kind things, from involving the family in Sub for Santa to doing yard work for others and baking gluten-free cakes for a friend's husband.