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Teresa Parson: From small-town farm girl to Missouri’s First Lady

Mother. Grandmother. Wife. Christian. Volunteer. Advocate. 

Retired from the banking industry, Teresa Parson holds a lot of titles.

And in recent months, she added another: First Lady of the State of Missouri.

To the average person, that may seem like a lot for a person to handle. But the Bolivar native is taking it all in stride. She has a loving family, she works in support of causes she believes in, and lives her life for the Lord. 

All in all, she is living her idea of perfect happiness. 

“I am a woman of faith, I have a loving family, I had a great career, and I live in the State of Missouri — which is my favorite state — in a country that is unbeatable,” said Teresa. “I think that I am living perfect happiness.”

Teresa’s husband is Mike Parson, the Governor of Missouri. They have two children — whom she calls her proudest accomplishments — and five grandchildren. She works with at-risk high schoolers through Jobs for American Graduates and advocates for special needs children. 

That’s not to say her life has been without imperfections: she lost her brother in a road accident and has some small regrets. But as Teresa says, “there is going to be ups and downs in life. Be thankful for your blessings.”

Teresa grew up in Bolivar, Missouri, in Polk County. She was born and raised on a farm. Not only did her father raise dairy cattle but he also put in working a 40-hour work week off of the farm. This gave Teresa and her siblings time working in the dairy barn.

In the mornings, Teresa would help her mother make breakfast while her three brothers would milk the dairy cattle. In the evenings, once her brothers got into high school and started playing sports, Teresa would handle the milking. 

Some of her best memories growing up involve her brothers and a creek that ran through their farm. Nearly every afternoon in the summer they would run down the hill to the creek and take a dip in the water. 

“It was a good life,” said Teresa. “We had fun, we played outside from sunup to sundown. It was just a good life.”

She got her first job as a 16-year-old when she worked as a sales clerk at a department store after school and on Saturdays. This was when she first started interacting with the public in a professional capacity and she “actually enjoyed it.”

As a math-loving individual, Teresa saw herself becoming a teacher when she was still in school. Though she went into banking instead, a move she called a “good fit” with the amount of math involved in her job. She stayed in the banking industry for 40 years before retiring in 2016.

Teresa paired her years in the banking industry with an active and dedicated volunteer. She served on the boards of the Bolivar Educational Advancement Foundation, Bolivar Juvenile Detention Center, A+ Program, Industrial Development Authority, Bolivar Chamber of Commerce, and volunteering with the Relay for Life. 

Her life has taught her “to treat people the way I want to be treated.”

In the banking world, there is a point when she would have to tell someone ‘no,’ that she couldn’t do something for them. To Teresa, “there is a kind way of doing it and there is another way of doing it” and she always tried to be nice, kind, and treat them with respect. 

And that is how Teresa wants to be remembered: “As a person who treated everyone with respect. A lady that had good character, a faithful person who relied on the Lord for guidance.”

It was through her job at the bank where she met her husband.

Gov. Parson had just bought his first gas station and Teresa was working the drive-through window at the bank. He would make his deposits each day at the bank and they got to talking and visiting a bit.

“He went back to work and talked to the lady who was actually doing his books for him at that time — he didn’t know it at the time but she was my second cousin — so he asked Renee about me, if she knew who I was,” Teresa recounted. “Renee ended up giving me a phone call one night asking me if I would go out with her boss if he were to ask me. My reply immediately was, ‘Well, he’ll have to ask me himself to find that answer out, Renee.’ The next day he actually did call me and we did go out.” 

The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

She didn’t know how to describe how she knew Mike Parson was “the one” saying “it was just something we both felt.” Teresa describes the Governor as loving, an honest man, and a patriot. 

Now, they have been married for more than three decades. She said the births of her two children are the happiest moments of her life. She also calls her children her proudest accomplishments. 

“I’m very proud of the productive adults they have become,” Teresa said.

Her parents, she says, have been the biggest influences on her life. They will be celebrating their 68th wedding anniversary this year, still living on their own, and they get out and go every day.

“I have three brothers — I was an only daughter — and they taught my brothers and me that hard work never hurt anyone,” said Teresa. “I’ve had a great life — I have a loving family, a loving husband — so I don’t have too many regrets.”

But she said that everyone, if they are being honest with themselves, does have at least some small regrets in life. The trick, Teresa said, is to learn from them, move forward, and not repeat the same things again. 

That doesn’t mean her life has been perfect. In 2005, one of Teresa’s brothers was killed. He was working a wreck one night as an EMT and he had been hit and killed by a passing motorist. She said that there probably isn’t a day that goes by that something doesn’t remind me of him or I don’t think of him. 

She has never run for office herself but she has been alongside Mike Parson every step of the way, as the Governor transitioned from Polk County Sheriff to state representative to state senator to lieutenant governor and now as governor. She held the Bible during the swearing-in ceremony for both lt. governor and governor. 

Growing up, Teresa never saw herself being in the public eye. A small town farm girl, she did not think this was in the cards for her.

“Life has definitely been a little different. Moving along with Mike has been great,” Teresa said. “Since Mike has been in politics for some time, I’ve gotten used to it, somewhat.”

It is because her husband has been in politics that she knew what to expect coming into her role as First Lady. Though, having someone always with her is definitely different from her normal lifestyle and has taken some getting used to. 

Service is Sweet

The First Lady of the State of Missouri may be an honorary title, but it is a role in the public eye and one Teresa Parson takes seriously.

For her, it is important to be there with the Governor, be supportive. She is also using the role to advocate for children and help the citizens of the state. 

“I enjoy being with people and I enjoy making new relationships and new friendships,” Teresa said. “It has just been a joy.”

Part her new role was playing host to the First Lady’s Pie Baking Contest at the 2018 Missouri State Fair. While the Governor did make a short appearance at the contest, Teresa took an active role in the contest.

She assisted with a demonstration of making black walnut bars by passing out samples of the end product. Teresa handed out the awards for the top three pies in each category — cream and fruit, and then helped evaluate the top cream pie and the top fruit pie to determine the overall winner. The fruit pie – a berry pie – came out the winner.

Teresa is also using her new position to focus on students and children. She has chosen JAG, which stands for Jobs for American Graduates, and children with special needs as her two main areas of focus.

“I’m a mother and a grandmother, children just touch my heart,” said Teresa. “[Children] are the next generation and they are our future. It is something I am interested in and if we can help them to become productive citizens in our state, that’s what we need to do. One of the initiatives in Mike’s office is workforce development and it graduates right into that because these programs do as well, to help them get into the workforce.”

Working with student at-risk of not graduating high school was something the Parsons started while Mike was serving as lieutenant governor. The goal of JAG is to help at-risk students stay in high school and earn their diploma. 

JAG is a national network compromising of 33 state organizations and 1,162 program affiliates delivering services to approximately 57,000 students in the 2016-17 school year.

The program in Missouri was established in 1981 and over the course of nearly four decades has had various levels of engagement. 

JAG-Missouri has been housed under several different state agencies — including the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the Missouri Department of Economic Development. It has also gone through various levels of funding, staffing, and school involvement over the years. As of July 1, 2017, the program began operating as a separate nonprofit organization under a Board of Directors. 

In recent years, the program has done well in the Show-Me State. For the class of 2015, JAG-Missouri finished first in the nation with a 99 percent graduation rate. For the class of 2016, the graduation rate was 98.75 and JAG-Missouri achieved the “5 for 5” designation, having met or exceeded the goals established by JAG National for graduation rate, total civilian job placement and military service rate, positive outcomes, full-time jobs rate, and full-time placement rate.

In the 2017-2018 school year, there were 26 programs in 22 schools. A significant increase from the fall of 2014 when there were six schools in JAG-Missouri. 

“I just hope to give these students some skills and some tools they need to become productive citizens in our society and to make it a better place for them,” said Teresa. 

She said success to her would constitute the students getting through high school, getting their diplomas, and entering into the workforce.  

Q&A with the First Lady

If you could change one thing about Missouri, what would it be?

I love Missouri. I’ve lived here all my life — born and raised in Missouri — so there are not very many things I would want to change. But probably the humidity. That’s the thing I would want to change the most, otherwise, it is just great. 

What’s the biggest misconception about you?

This one is a little funny, I suppose. Probably the biggest misconception is that people think I am younger than Mike. And I am actually older than he is. 

What do you think is the most overrated virtue?

Confidence, probably. I know it is a very important virtue but if you are overconfident sometimes you can make some rash, unwise decisions. I think you have to keep it in moderation.

What do you think is the most underrated virtue?

I think humility. I think if you are humble and you have that, then everything in life will pretty well take care of itself. 

Which historical figure do you most admire?

Abraham Lincoln. He took our country through a very rough, tough time.

Who do is your inspiration?

I have a friend who is probably my biggest inspiration in life, she is always upbeat, she just looks at the bright side of every situation. Her name is Shirley. She is a widow — her husband passed away 15-years-ago from cancer. A couple years ago she lost her home to a fire and lost everything she had. Even through all that, she stayed positive and just moved forward. She is definitely an inspiration.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?

Just showing someone respect. It doesn’t take much effort for us to show someone respect. And it definitely makes a big difference in the relationship you have with that person. 

For your great-great-grandchildren reading this years from now: is there any wisdom you’d want to pass on to them? 

Always keep your family first, faith in your lives, and just be thankful for all the blessed things along the way. There is going to be ups and downs in life. Be thankful for your blessings. I hope my children work hard and make the most out of life because it is very short and very precious. 

This appeared in the fall 2018 edition of the Missouri Times Magazine, available in Jefferson City at the Capitol, Tolson’s, Cork, and J. Pfenny’s, and online here.