Christmas this year is going to be a quiet one for the family of Louisiana’s newly-elected governor.
After months on the campaign trail in a bitter fight for the governorship, John Bel Edwards and wife Donna have been busy with the transition and planning the Jan. 11 inauguration. No one has had time to shop.
“It’s going to be a pretty low-key Christmas,” says Donna Edwards. “We’re going to stay at home and enjoy being still and in one place and everybody being together.
“I did do a little Christmas shopping for stocking stuffers … fluffing, as I call it,” she continues. “John Bel doesn’t understand it, but you’ve got to fluff.”
As they always do, the governor-elect, 49, his wife, 48, and their three children — 23-year-old Samantha, 20-year-old Sarah Ellen and, as of next week, 14-year-old John Miller — will celebrate Christmas Eve with extended family from both sides before heading to Mass at St. Helena Catholic Church in Amite.
“John Bel usually reads at Mass,” adds Donna Edwards, proudly.
Another Edwards Christmas tradition is watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which they did Sunday.
“And it has to be the black-and-white version; John Bel insists on that,” Donna Edwards says.
The Christmas dinner menu is a typical Louisiana one: “Turkey, ham, dressing … the same foods most others have,” she says. “Everybody brings their special dish. My specialty is Crockpot dressing.”
Not a dish he always prepares at Christmas, but one of the governor-elect’s specialties is oyster soup.
“He cooks better than I do,” she confesses. “In fact, they’re looking forward to that in the Governor’s Mansion — the Edwards brothers cook-off. They all cook.”
John Bel Edwards has six brothers and a sister. Their father was the late Frank Edwards Jr., who was sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish, a position brother Daniel Edwards now holds.
The rigors of the gubernatorial campaign were exhausting and may have impacted their Christmas, but the Edwardses don’t seem to mind.
“I love people,” explains Donna Edwards, who, like her husband of 26 years, is a native of the small town of Amite. The town, which is the parish seat of Tangipahoa Parish and is 48 miles northeast of Baton Rouge, has some 4,200 residents.
“That’s what has made this journey for the last three years, specifically this past year, really bearable,” Donna Edwards said. “I love getting to know people, hearing their stories. We’ve formed a lot of great friendships around the state throughout this process. … I think being from a small town has encouraged us to get to know people, and not just to get to know them, but to stay in contact with them. People have emailed us, texted through this whole process and they continue to do so.”
Donna Hutto and John Bel Edwards met when they were in junior high school. She was 14 and he was 15. She was captivated by his smile.
“And he was always smiling.”
A 1988 Dean’s List graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Edwards was chosen by his classmates as the vice chairman of the Honor Committee in Charge of Investigations. But his future wife was aware of his integrity way before that. It was just one more reason she said “yes” when her high school sweetheart asked her to marry him.
The two exchanged vows at St. Helena’s right after he completed Airborne Ranger training at Fort Benning, Georgia. From there, they went to Hawaii, and Edwards began an eight-year tour of active duty.
“You know, when a Southern girl leaves her mom …,” says Donna Edwards. “John Bel was a young lieutenant … you learn to bond real quick, to get along real well and become a team right off the bat, and we’ve been a team ever since. We formed a team and we’ve stayed that way.
“And our faith,” she continues. “Our faith has been first and foremost throughout this whole campaign and really brought us through it.”
As public life of any kind is wont to do, holding office and campaigning for governor was hard on the Edwards family.
“It’s been tough; it hasn’t been easy,” Edwards admits. “I initially told our son it’s like being in military. You know, John Bel gave eight years to active duty and he served his country, and he served eight years as a state representative for his district, and he worked hard for the last year and has given up a lot to the state and the community and it kind of compares to the military.”
It also meant she was somewhat of a single parent at times. It was made easier with FaceTime and social media helping keep everybody connected.
“Our oldest daughter, who’s in school at Southeastern in Hammond, came back home and our family came in and surrounded us and made sure everybody got fed properly,” says Edwards. “We’re a family team, also. We make sure we all talk at least once day and make sure everybody knows what’s going on.”
That team spirit will have to last a little longer as everyone prepares for the inauguration and move into the Governor’s Mansion, which takes place the week before.
“We’re not that far from home so we can move a little a time,” adds Edwards, who already has bought her inaugural gown.
Teamwork also will have to get them through daughter Samantha’s upcoming wedding. The ceremony has been planned for St. Helena’s in Amite but there’s a strong possibility the reception may take place at the Governor’s Mansion.
Once she gets the inauguration and wedding behind her, Edwards has a project that’s dear to her heart she wants to tackle.
“Being an educator, I look forward to being a voice for teachers across the state and advocating on their behalf,” she explains.
In particular, the former elementary music teacher is excited about advancing the cause of music and arts in the schools.
“All children should have access to music and arts in the schools. I’d love to see that.”