TALLAHASSEE -- Ann Scott stepped up to the microphone in a tangerine dress, her blonde hair curled in at her shoulders, flags of her country and state behind her.
Gov. Rick Scott’s wife, 60, petite and put-together, looked the part of Florida’s first lady.
Was she ready to act it?
Almost a year and a half after her husband was elected, Ann was finally about to give her first solo press conference. She needed to say a few words at Tallahassee’s largest hospital about a campaign she championed to distribute baby journals to new moms.
A month earlier, she had declined an interview with the Tampa Bay Times through her aide, who said she was flattered but “notwithstanding her husband’s election to statewide office, she wants to try to maintain as private a life as she can.”
Now she was standing in front of people with cameras and questions. It was everything she begged her husband not to make her do.
Ann wanted her husband to be governor. But she wasn’t at all sure she wanted to be first lady.
The role is nebulous, undefined but rife with expectations of advocacy. First ladies are supposed to use the spotlight to support causes traditionally within a woman’s purview, such as children, the elderly or the arts.
Speaking engagements are part of the job. But Ann has dreaded public speaking since sixth grade, when her social studies teacher called on her to give an oral report.
She walked up to the front of the class and stared out at all of the faces. She tried to speak but her voice shook. Her knees and hands trembled. Her classmates laughed. Her teacher did nothing to stop them.
“That was it,” she said, recounting the moment to the Tampa Bay Times in a 30-minute interview in December, eight months after she initially declined. As she spoke, her chief of staff and two press aides watched intently from an opposite couch.
Ann is refined, and revels in her private roles of mother, wife and friend. She smiles through the interview, but she is careful not to say anything that might hurt the man she married.
High school sweethearts
Ann and Rick Scott have been together since high school, well before he made a fortune building a giant hospital company, launched a crusade to oppose President Barack Obama’s healthcare law and poured $70 million into his campaign for governor.
She was the new girl in town with a Texas twang, sitting in the North Kansas City High School library in 1970. He was the gangly, blue-eyed young man who wanted to be a lawyer, a businessman, anything but poor.
What did she see in him?
“I don’t know. I just thought he was cute.”
After an eight-month courtship, he treated her to dinner at a fancy restaurant. When dessert came, he gave her a simple solitaire with little diamonds on each side.
It was not a surprise. She had helped him pick it out.
The wedding ceremony at a Baptist church in Kansas City was modest. They served only wedding cake, punch and mints.
They grew up together, scrimping and saving. When they moved to Newport, R.I., the site of her husband’s Navy duty station, Ann worked as a legal secretary and shopped for groceries on a $15 weekly budget.
She didn’t know anyone.
“I remember her writing and saying how lonely she was there,” said Debbie Wiest, her friend of 40 years. “You never want people to feel that way.”
Ann moved where her husband moved. They lived in a Kansas City, Mo., basement apartment. He worked on his bachelor’s degree and ran a donut shop. She went with him to Dallas. He got a law degree from Southern Methodist University. She got a bachelor’s degree in business administration from SMU in 1980 and worked as a corporate tax accountant. She quit her job when her daughters, Allison and Jordan, were born.
As Rick worked at a large law firm, he used his life’s savings in 1987 to start building a hospital company. Columbia Hospital Corp. grew from just two Texas hospitals into the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain. Ann got used to the hosting duties that came with being a CEO’s wife.
She was coming out of her “shy box,” Wiest said.
In 1992, on their 20th wedding anniversary, Rick bought Ann a new wedding ring.
She went with her husband from Texas to Louisville to Nashville. Her daughters asked where home was. She told them, “Home is where we are.”
Columbia merged with Hospital Corporation of America in 1994, but the success of the company wouldn’t last. Rick was forced out in 1997 amid a federal probe into the company’s Medicare billing practices, and Columbia/HCA paid a record $1.7 billion penalty. Ann watched him come under intense criticism during those years, and not for the last time.
From there she went with him to Connecticut, and then, in 2003, to an $11.5 million oceanfront home in Naples. She set up a small interior-decorating business after getting her own new home just right.
In Naples, her husband could not sit still. The president was proposing an overhaul of the country’s healthcare system that the Republican businessman despised.
The trek to Tallahassee
Rick first started a political committee, Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, to attack the reforms. Then he got to thinking he could do more if he became governor of the country’s biggest battleground state.
“We talked about how it would be hard,” he said. “You look at what happens in politics. If you have any success, you get attacked by the media.”
Ann told him OK — she always did — with one condition: Don’t make her give speeches.
“That lasted about 30 days,” he said. “Then everybody wanted her to come talk about who I was.”
Ann was reluctant to be seen, but was with her husband at every step, even sitting for a TV ad about the “beautiful promises” he made for their future together on a page in her yearbook. Sounding sentimental but rehearsed, she looked at the camera straight-on and said that through all their years of marriage, “I’ve never seen Rick Scott give up.”
She traveled around the state with Rick and his mother, Esther, who was adored by crowds for calling Rick “a good boy” in commercials.
Victory brought a new focus on the family. On the day before Rick’s inauguration, a crowd of about 200 packed a Tallahassee museum to hear friends and family members pay tribute to Florida’s next first lady.
People get accolades when they build companies or run for office, the governor-elect said. “But your wife never does.” She never complained through all the things he put her through, he said. He planted a kiss on her.
Allison Guimard, 30, the Scotts’ oldest daughter, cried as she described a devoted CEO wife and impeccably dressed stay-at-home mom who joined her daughters in clogging, horseback riding and jazz dance lessons. Jordan Kandah, 27, praised her mom as a fastidious organizer who volunteered at Liberty Youth Ranch, a home for neglected kids.
Ann wiped away tears and laughed while listening to stories told by her tight-knit group of girlfriends, a half-dozen women she met over the years who see her as an equal to her husband and as their common denominator. Ann went last and stayed composed through her own remarks, cracking jokes about her discomfort and going off-the-cuff to thank everyone for being so kind.
“I want to thank my husband, your next governor, Rick Scott, for making me challenge myself every day doing things I thought I could never do,” she said, “such as being up here speaking to you.”
People who watch first ladies say Ann is thriving in her role.
Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward called her the “epitome of a perfect dinner date” after chatting with her about the Governor’s Mansion dining room’s French wallpaper and commiserating over the pain of trying out new contact lenses. Her Naples pastor, the Rev. Kirt Anderson, said she is a great conversationalist who always asks questions to make people feel special.
Her personal trainer, Janice Powell, invites her to tailgate parties and dinners around town in addition to their 6:30 a.m. workouts. They talk about their children and about eating healthy (Rick and Ann are on a diet that does not allow meat, fish or dairy).
“She’s just the most genuine person I ever met,” Powell said. “All of my girlfriends love her.”
Most people, Ann said, “are, like, shocked to hear I was shy.”
She has kept busy, encouraging adoption, supporting military families, reading books like Llama Llama Red Pajama to children at state parks, and helping third-graders make “Florida veggie bird” sculptures of cucumber, cheese and honeydew.
Perhaps her most enduring achievement will be what she has accomplished in her new home, the red-brick, colonial-style Governor’s Mansion.
Ann worked with a local designer to bring in new draperies, reupholstered seating and paint in place of aged wallpaper, all while keeping the home’s 19th Century feel.
She borrowed traditional and modern artwork from the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota and the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville. She added family photos to make it more homey, including many portraits of her year-old grandson, Auguste. She brought in artifacts relevant to Florida history, including olive oil jars from the Christopher Columbus family crypt in Spain.
She expanded the season for public tours, and invited school groups to see the rejuvenated historic home.
“It’s been amazing what she’s been able to accomplish in such a short amount of time,” said Adele Graham, wife of former Gov. Bob Graham and a member of the commission that oversees the mansion.
Ann likes to read the newspaper, including stories critical of her husband. When asked about the negativity around Rick, she brushes it off as part of the political game.
“The president is not loved by everyone, either,” she said.
The Scotts have watched their family grow, becoming grandparents to Auguste in November 2011. Ann tries to visit him at least once a month in Naples, doting on him with books with holes for finger puppets. She keeps a crib for him at the mansion.
The Scotts also have dealt with personal sorrows from Tallahassee: In 2012, they lost all three of their remaining parents. Ann’s father, James, died in January; her mother, Kathleen, in September; and Esther Scott in November.
“I never thought I would lose both my parents so close together,” she said. “It’s just a strange feeling.”
They grieved their losses in the public eye, receiving words of condolence from people who never knew their parents.
Ann says she does not pine for their old life.
“You know what? I would never stop him from doing what he wants to do. I never have,” she said. “I’m really proud of him that he wants to make a difference and make Florida a better state.”
At that first press conference at the Tallahassee hospital, Ann smiled and started to tell reporters about her baby journal for new moms.
She thanked the hospital’s CEO for a generous introduction and the small crowd for showing up.
“I see a lot of friendly, smiling faces out there,” she said, “which is nice when you’re the one up here.”
She took her time through the four-minute speech. She had practiced her points over and over, about reading to her children at an early age and tricking them into eating their vegetables. She measured her words. Her voice shook only a little.
She finished to polite applause and greeted attendees on her way out, including a reporter who asked a question. An entourage of media, security, hospital staff and governor’s press handlers followed her into the hospital room of a new mother.
As cameras rolled and flashed, Ann showed her the baby journal and turned a few pages. She stroked the newborn’s cheek and turned to the mother.
“I think you’re very brave to have let all of us come in here today,” she said. “I don’t know if I would have been that brave.”
Herald/Times reporters Steve Bousquet and Tia Mitchell and Tampa Bay Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.