By Jennifer Hannigan | Photography by Jeff Montgomery
On a brisk March morning, first ladies Louise Ganus, Leah Burks and Ann McLarty gathered for tea under the colonnade in the First Ladies Garden. Upon sitting down at the table together, Burks remarked how nice it was for them to still be in the same place as many past university presidents and their wives tend to leave after retirement. The three women, who collectively make up more than 50 years of Harding’s history, share a special bond having served in the same role. Through their connection, these first ladies of Harding are able to provide support and understanding for each other that few others can.
As to be expected when three friends meet up, the conversation turned to their shared experiences and the memories of being first lady.
Louise Nicholas Ganus
First Lady from 1965-87, wife of Dr. Clifton Ganus
I took speech class under sister [Woodson] Armstrong. She said to me, “Honey, you’re the only person I know who puts two syllables in ‘and.’” I loved her very much.
I had to learn a lot from [former first ladies] Mrs. Armstrong and Mrs. [Sallie] Benson. Mrs. Armstrong gave me an Emily Post etiquette book that I used when we had guests and dinners. Mrs. Benson had me serve a lot, sit at the head of the table, and help her. It helped me to learn what to do when my time came. The dinners were up to the women. They had to cook, clean and have them in their home. There was no catering. I had friends and my daughter, Debbie, helping me.
The house was like Grand Central Station. We didn’t have hotels. We kept the guests in our homes. Everyone from men playing faculty/staff softball to dignitaries, parents wanting to bring their kids to look at the school came through there. We lived in the Rock House [now the campus ministry house on Market Avenue] and built the house we’re in now in 1961. We knew we needed a house that could keep guests.
The early first ladies had flower gardens. I would make arrangements for the dinners from those flowers. I was one of the founding members of the Searcy garden club, Greenkeepers. We made corsages. We didn’t have a florist in Searcy. That was part of it, being able to pull off those things together. It was a lot to do. I’m thankful I was healthy, and Cliff was healthy.
I began Associated Women for Harding. When we were in New York, I was a member of the Columbia Dames while Cliff was in school there. We did activities together. I enjoyed being a member of that group and supporting that school. So I brought that back to Harding. We wanted an activity group. It’s grown to different towns.
I wrote individual letters to the wives of board members. I didn’t type back then, and I wrote individual letters inviting them to come to the meetings with their husbands. That created a relationship with them that became helpful. They went back to their communities and got help for the school, raising funds.
I had to work after my freshman year. I had a scholarship the first year, but after that I had to work. I worked for Dr. [George] Benson in college and learned to sign his name on letters exactly as he did.
I loved being first lady. I really enjoyed it, and I’ve loved having Harding as a part of our lives. I was just fortunate enough to come to Harding and meet Cliff Ganus. It has been a wonderful life.
Leah Gentry Burks
First Lady from 1987-2013, wife of Dr. David B. Burks
My philosophy was whatever I need to do, that’s what I’ll do. My family came first, which meant the children and David, and I would support him in whatever way I could. Whatever he asked me to do, I’d try to do it.
My first priority was family, so until they were out of the home, I really tried to keep an even keel. I didn’t travel with David as long as they were at home, but when they left and got married, then I could start doing projects. But I remember Dr. Benson came to me one day and said, “Whatever you do, don’t forget your family.”
We tried to be considerate of our children’s lives because they were still at home when David became president. It affected them probably more so than it did us. We tried to keep things on a normal keel. When we built the house, we purposely put a staircase right inside the backdoor so that when the kids came in from their activities, they wouldn’t have to go through the crowd, they could just go up to their bedrooms. If they wanted to come down, that was fine, but if they wanted to go up there and have their own time, they could. We tried to be a normal family and stress the importance of family.
Things didn’t change that much when David became president because he had always been active. We always entertained; it was just on a bigger scale. We always had lots of company. We still do.
The Harding community is always there to help. I guess when I had my cancer, that was probably the biggest example. They were there. They were very supportive. I did what I could, and they were understanding. I think the part that really impressed me was all the notes I got from all over the world. The concern I got. I’m a very private person. I didn’t realize all these people were out there. They showed how much we’re a family.
Mrs. Ganus told me the same thing I told Ann: just do it your own way. Don’t try to copy someone else. There’s enough stress without trying to be somebody you’re not. For Louise, it was a different time. It was a smaller campus. She had a hard act to follow with Mrs. Benson. She was supportive. If I had any questions, I could always call on her. We’re so different that I just tried to be myself.
I would never have dreamed growing up on a farm in Illinois that I would be entertaining dignitaries in my home. That we would have Mikhail Gorbachev in our living room or Barbara Bush sitting by my fireplace and asking about my children or Margaret Thatcher talking to my daughter-in-law and giving her advice on her newborn baby. I found Barbara Bush to be the most personable. After it was all over, she could have said she was tired and left, but she sat down and patted the seat and said, come, sit and talk to me.
I have loved watching the students develop from coming in as freshmen. We had a home Bible study, and since our home was nearby, we had a lot of freshmen. And I’ve been able to watch them grow over the years and have their own families. It’s kind of like children. You prepare them all their lives to leave and then when the time comes and they do, you don’t want them to.
As the times have changed and the college has changed, I believe God has stepped in and guided. There was a need, and I think he was responsible for choosing and making it possible.
Ann Hutson McLarty
First Lady from 2013 to present, wife of Dr. Bruce McLarty
I think I had an advantage in that Bruce was on the cabinet, and so I got to watch Leah for about seven years before all of this, so that helped me in knowing what to expect. It wasn’t an overwhelming task when the time came, and then I had these two to seek advice about whatever I was wanting or needing. Leah never made it look difficult, which was wonderful. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t, but she never made it look that way.
One of the biggest things that surprised me about being first lady was the pace. We vacillate from it’s crazy to it’s insane. The pace is unrelenting. It’s constant. You have to make your peace with that; otherwise, it would drive you nuts.
It touches me deeply when someone will say, “I pray for you and Bruce daily.” And I may not even know them. I always say, “Please keep on because we’re always going to need that.”
I was a nurse at the campus clinic for 20 years, and watching the students mature and launch is one of the most fulfilling things. It’s just great to see the difference because there’s a big difference from a freshman to a senior. It’s so exciting when the freshmen come because they are so excited. And then, at the end, they’re kind of melancholy when they leave. It’s fun to meet up with them later on.
Family life is a day-to-day thing, day-to-day working on balance. It’s not looking too far ahead so it’s not so overwhelming. I’m having to try to make sure we get the time with the grandkids and our daughters that we really want to have. We take advantage of the Christmas break and other times and then I’m free at other times. You can stay so busy that there’s no time to do anything with family.
When Bruce was named president, the first thing that went through my mind was, I’ve got to talk to Mrs. Burks and Mrs. Ganus. The neat thing was that they gave me their support. That was the best thing. Mrs. Ganus said, “I live right next door. You can come talk to me any time.”
It’s the knowing that someone has walked this before. We got to talking one time as the three couples and said, you know, it’s a rare thing to be in this position and know that there are two other couples who understand your world.
They never did give me any advice — and I think they did that on purpose so that it would encourage me to make it my own. In any incoming first lady’s mind, you wonder, “How in the world am I going to live up to her?” And there’s no way to equal it. I just have to go my own path. There’s a continuity that’s been fun, for all of us to be here. It’s been great to have them.
The First Ladies Garden
Created to honor the five women who have served the University as first lady, the First Ladies Garden also serves as a way for students, alumni and friends to celebrate the women who have helped shape their lives and is a visual reminder of the impact women have had on Harding. As Women for Harding worked to raise funds for the project, the idea was that every family has a woman who has served as its first lady, and those mothers, grandmothers, sisters and friends are represented throughout the garden.
Completed in 2016, the corridor sits between Stephens, Shores and Pryor halls and links older portions of campus to the newer Legacy Park area. Included in the addition are a colonnade, fountain, outdoor classroom and secret garden. Each first lady — Woodson Armstrong, Sallie Benson, Louise Ganus, Leah Burks and Ann McLarty — has a garden named in her honor with her favorite flowers.