DURHAM Where North Carolina’s first ladies are concerned, Ann McCrory may be a first.
As a general rule, she doesn’t do interviews – and didn’t respond to requests to answer questions for this story.
She doesn’t do many public appearances either – and already has caused a stir around the state capital when she declined last week to host the Junior League’s traditional “First Lady’s Luncheon” in Raleigh.
As best as anyone can tell, McCrory doesn’t cut ribbons or pose for photographs or join her husband for chicken dinners or compromise her privacy with the public duties long associated with the spouses of governors and big-city mayors.
So pardon the collective gasp at the Westin hotel in Charlotte on the night of Nov. 6 when McCrory, wearing a stylish red dress, stepped before a cheering crowd and statewide television audience and gave an actual political speech.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being here,” she began. “It gives me great pleasure to introduce the next governor of North Carolina – and my husband! – Pat McCrory.”
Her husband took it from there. But for 26 words and 12 seconds, the intensely private Ann Gordon McCrory – a woman whom one acquaintance affectionately calls an intentional “wallflower” – had seized center stage.
“That took her way out of her comfort zone,” says John Lassiter, the former Charlotte City Council member and a close family friend.
“Those of us who know them both realize what it meant, not only to him, but to her.”
In fact, Lassiter calls it a “seminal moment” – not just for the biggest win in McCrory’s political career, but in a public-private partnership in which the McCrorys’ marriage has coincided with the husband’s reach for elected office.
Ann McCrory hasn’t fully embraced that career. Nor has she opposed it. Now, after her husband’s three City Council terms, seven terms as mayor and two tries at the governor’s office, she has moved into a late 19th-century mansion at the center of government for a state of more than 9 million people. There, the demands on her time – and the questions about her own life and marriage – will immeasurably grow.
However, those who know the new first lady say there are no guarantees that her public role will grow right along with them.
“I don’t think Ann desires the spotlight at all, and Pat has honored that request,” says David Chadwick, pastor of Forest Hill Church in Charlotte and a spiritual confidant of the governor.
“She is very supportive of Pat. She loves him a great deal. But she sees her job as behind the scenes. She doesn’t want the spotlight to shine on her in any way.”
Now that she’s on a bigger stage, that’s already proving harder to do.
Thursday, Ann McCrory led an entourage to the Durham Rescue Mission to serve and share a catered lunch with the women and children the facility serves. As a few reporters and photographers watched, she sat with children and talked with their mothers. A 2-year-old named Landon stuck out his tongue at the new first lady. She responded in kind. And after a mission client told her story of homelessness and despair, McCrory thanked her, then added: “I’ve had hard times, too.”
The event was arranged, in part, to counteract her decision not to host the Junior League fundraiser.
“She didn’t want to get involved in a big old deal,” said Ernie Mills, the rescue mission’s co-founder. “She just wanted to get out into the community and serve. And she ordered me to keep it quiet.”
After 90 minutes, McCrory said her goodbyes, shared a few hugs, then slipped behind a small flying wedge of state troopers that led her out the front door and into a white SUV. She sent word that she would not talk to reporters.
But by then, she had shared her meal and details of her personal life with Rebekah Allred, a former client of the center.
“She talked about herself, how she was just like us, that everybody has their struggles,” Allred said. “She was so genuine and open. I wish more politicians were like that. We all need to know that we all have different lives, and that nobody’s life is perfect.”
The introverted yin to her husband’s extroverted yang, Ann McCrory is described by friends as candid, funny and smart.
Tall, slender and in her mid-50s, she carries “an incredibly calming influence,” Charlotte United Way Executive Director Jane McIntyre says, which counteracts her husband’s passionate and occasionally mercurial side.
Those who know her best – family and close friends – defend her desire for privacy. None agreed to talk for this story. Gov. McCrory was emailed a list of questions about his wife that went unanswered.
“There is a mystery to her,” says one Charlotte businessman who considers her a friend, but wished to remain anonymous.
“She’s a wallflower, but it’s not because she’s shy,” he said. “When (Pat) was running for governor she didn’t like the attention.”
That trait showed up time after time during her husband’s 20-year career in local politics.
In 2001, actress Andie MacDowell, who attended Gaffney (S.C.) High School with then Ann Gordon in the early 1970s, premiered her new film in uptown Charlotte to raise money for her children’s foundation.
MacDowell ran into Pat McCrory, already on his way to becoming the city’s longest-serving mayor, on the red carpet outside the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.
“Where’s Ann?” she asked.
Ann McCrory, it turned out, was home – pet-sitting a neighbor’s dog.
Ann Gordon was one of four daughters born to William and Cynthia Gordon. Ann is said to have been particularly close with her late father, a retired Air Force colonel who later taught economics at Limestone College in Gaffney.
At Gaffney High, Ann was a member of the Spanish and Bible clubs, and the pep squad. Her role grew at Limestone College. In the school’s 1976 yearbook, she appears as a member of the student senate and the historian of her sorority. She was also a junior attendant of the annual “May Court.”
A 1983 marriage ended in Columbia, after four years. According to the settlement, Ann took back her maiden name. She also got the china, the vacuum as well as joint custody of Brutus, the couple’s golden retriever. Pat McCrory was also a divorcee. He and Ann came from corporate human-resources backgrounds, she at Cigna, he at Duke Energy. Several acquaintances date their meeting to a HR convention in Atlanta.
They married in 1988. A year later, McCrory won a seat on the Charlotte City Council. After three, two-year terms, he expanded his horizons, ran for mayor and won.
Unlike any of his predecessors, he steadily transformed a part-time office into a full-time job. As his public responsibilities grew, his wife doggedly – and deftly – stayed in the shadows.
“I don’t think it was tough for Ann to deal with,” says Lynn Wheeler, who served on the City Council with Pat McCrory for 14 years.
“It was my observation that she only showed up for the major things for him. He didn’t have a problem with that. It was a partnership that they had worked out and they both stayed happy.”
Ann McCrory may be quiet, Wheeler says, “but she tells you what she thinks.”
Ann McCrory moved into the governor’s mansion in Raleigh soon after her husband was sworn in Saturday.
She assumes a role for which there is no script, says UNC Chapel Hill political analyst Ferrel Guillory, who has observed governors and their families for 40 years.
Every first lady has been different, he says. Some, like Mary Easley, kept full-time jobs. Carolyn Hunt raised the children during husband Jim’s first two terms in Raleigh. But she spent most of her time on the couple’s Wilson County farm during his third and fourth. She also served on the local school board.
Unlike most of the other first families, the McCrorys have no children.
He thinks the public and media “ought to give her time and freedom to figure out how she wants to do this. And yes, she is living in public housing, as it were, and her husband and she obviously know that people are curious,” Guillory says.
Lassiter, whose own political career tracked McCrory for a quarter of a century, said finding the balance between public service and family responsibilities takes compromise.
“You run for mayor, you know you’ll have a few trips you have to make,” he says. “You run for governor, you’re running in a state with 100 counties that’s 500 miles wide. You’re going to be gone. You have to understand that, and you have to understand your relationship can flex to manage it.”
McCrory ran for governor in 2008 and lost. Afterward, he said he needed to tend to his marriage. “I’ve got a lot of repair work to do, because I haven’t been home for 10 months,” he said at the time.
In 2010, friends say he began to consider a second try. Lassiter says McCrory had his wife’s backing.
“She knew how important it was to him, how important it was to help, and she did that.”
Which brings us back to election night and Ann McCrory’s introduction of North Carolina’s first Republican governor in 20 years.
After the two hugged and kissed on stage, she stepped back and stood at his right shoulder, For the next seven and a half minutes, Pat McCrory touched all the right notes. But he closed on his speech on this one.
“God bless each one of you, God bless America, and God bless my wonderful wife, Ann.”
Staff writers Cristina Bolling and Jim Morrill and researcher Maria David contributed.