Wrestling with concept of `first lady'

Politics: Minnesota's Terry Ventura is slowly getting a grip on life as a governor's wife.

April 12, 1999|By Kay Harvey | Kay Harvey,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- After her husband was elected governor, Terry Ventura's home phone rang 100 times a day and the transition team took over her dining room. To lighten things up, she occasionally donned a rhinestone tiara -- a gift from one of her horse-riding students -- and announce, "You must worship me now."

Terry Ventura didn't go to college, travel in political circles or prep to be Minnesota's first lady. But she is easing into her role the way she has tackled most of her life -- with good humor, common sense, hard work and a stand-by-your-man philosophy. She never felt she was in her husband's shadow, she says, "because he was never in a place I wanted to be."

After 24 years of marriage, she remains deeply in love with Jesse Ventura. But she'll admit to sometimes wondering what her life would be had she not married him at age 19. And she doesn't believe for a second that her Cinderella story happened purely because her prince showed up.

"I spent a good portion of my life supporting my husband and raising my kids," says the Ventura, 43. "As a horsewoman, I'm respected; the first baby I raised was a champion."

While Jesse built a public persona, Terry Ventura became her own person, too. The morning after the election, she awoke "terrified," she says. "Everywhere, eyes are on you, and you feel like everything you say can be used against you. There are tremendous highs and tremendous lows -- like in regular life, only intensified by a thousand."

Former first lady Susan Carlson says Ventura called her in a panic. Carlson advised her to take her time figuring out what she wants to do. True to form, Terry says, her in-transition husband helped prop her up, too.

"He doesn't always show it, but he's very tender. The first month after he was elected, when he saw what I was going through, writing stuff on legal pads all over the house, he was very considerate of my feelings," she says.

Two months into her official tenure, Ventura is gaining confidence. She is one in a line of salt-of-the-earth women with a tough work ethic, a pioneering spirit and strong family values. At 4, the Mankato, Minn., native moved to the Twin Cities with her family. Her mother worked nights as she raised four children. Her grandmother cooked meals for hungry workers on the family's farm in Vernon Center, Minn. It was there young Terry was smitten with horses and the countryside.

"I loved the hard work," Ventura says. "We cooked tons of chickens and cakes in my grandparents' kitchen and baled hay until our arms were all ripped up. I remember getting in the shower ... with my arms stinging. And I would think, work is not an evil thing."

She has worked at jobs that could test that philosophy: receptionist, truck-stop clerk, waitress and -- when her husband was on the road building a wrestling career -- bartender and bouncer.

Ten years ago, she went to work for a man who taught her how to break a horse. That was when her dream of owning horses and a farm began to jell.

She met her husband in 1974 when she stopped after work with girlfriends at a bar then called the Rusty Nail. She had just graduated from high school and was working as a secretary. Jesse Ventura (then Jim Janos, his given name) was the bar's bouncer. "Our eyes locked, and that was it," his wife says. "We talked the whole night."

She was attracted to her husband partly because of his size, she says. "I always wanted somebody big enough to wrap my arms around just once, not twice," she says.

She also liked his intensity, no-nonsense determination and willingness to speak his mind. "He is one of the few men I met who was very driven. It just seemed like he could set a goal and accomplish it. The feminists will hate me for this, but I like feeling strong and secure with a man."

In July 1975, when she was barely a year out of high school, she and Jim Janos were wed. Their first home was in Minneapolis.

A decade and a half later, Jesse "The Body" Ventura had become a known name in wrestling and nailed some movie roles. He and his wife schmoozed with Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver. "I thought, `Just kill me now. I'm already in heaven,' " Terry Ventura says.

She and her husband are opposites, she says, a factor she partly credits for their compatibility. He is driven, and she can go with the flow. He'll don a boa onstage, and she gravitates toward blue jeans and a horse barn. He's optimistic, and she's "a good German Lutheran" who worries too much.

The toughest things Terry Ventura has experienced were her daughter's birth, when doctors diagnosed now-15-year-old Jade's rare form of epilepsy, and watching her in-laws die. Her mother-in-law lived with the Venturas for the last three years of her life.

Her best friends are her mom and two sisters, and she maintains close ties to a large extended family. When she has been tempted to second-guess youthful choices she made, thoughts of her children bring her back to the life she has helped to create.

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