At home with Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan’s family
Governor-elect Maggie Hassan's family, from left, her husband Tom, son Ben, Maggie, and daughter Meg laugh over dinner on Friday night, December 21, 2012, at their home in Exeter.
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)
Governor-elect Maggie Hassan walks with her son Ben to his room following dinner Friday night, December 21, 2012, at their home in Exeter.
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)
There’s a fancy dining room in the Hassan family’s Exeter home, with an impressive table and large windows looking out onto a quiet street.
But unless there’s an event for Phillips Exeter Academy, which owns the house, the room is dark and quiet. The daily debriefing of the Hassans’ lives happens upstairs in the brightly-lit yellow kitchen, around an island designed to bring the whole family together into the middle of things.
That’s where they sit together most nights, even if some of the family has eaten dinner and others haven’t, just to be together and talk about their days.
When Maggie and Tom Hassan were young professionals – he an administrator at
Phillips Exeter Academy and she a lawyer commuting to Boston – they carved time for each other every Friday, even if it was just for a drink. They continued focusing on their family as their careers grew, and still make time for dinner as a family. Daughter Meg, 20, attends when she’s home from college, and son Ben, 24, is there most nights, since he lives at home, where he receives physical therapy and assistance with his cerebral palsy.
As Tom Hassan pulled into the family’s driveway the Friday before Christmas, a tiny fake evergreen glowed in an upstairs window, where his family waited for him and the night’s takeout dinner. Honey Mae, their adopted mutt, tore through the kitchen, barking to announce Tom’s arrival home.
The rest of the family pulled chairs up to the kitchen’s central island and peeled away the covers on the tinfoil containers of stir-fried vegetables and noodles and chicken. As they ate, they caught up on how their days had gone and what they had planned for the coming weekend.
It’s not the home-cooked meals exactly on time that Tom might have grown up with, Maggie Hassan said, but the intent is the same.
“It was very hard for a time when I was commuting to Boston,” she said. “With traffic, among other things, and a lawyer’s schedule, any day could make my best-laid plans irrelevant. It took patience, and we didn’t always meet the goals we had, but we adjusted. Maybe it meant we didn’t cook dinner from scratch, and the house wasn’t as clean as we wanted, but it was more important to us that we spent that time together as a family.”
Hassan said she plans to continue making time for her family even after she’s sworn in on Thursday as governor.
“It’s important for people to have a lot of different experiences and perspectives,” she said in an interview earlier this month. “The more you can have a varied life and do other things, the better decision-maker you become.”
Today, family life rotates around the island in the middle of the kitchen. It has a standard counter height on one side, and a table-height portion along the other, with chairs. It means there’s enough space at the corner for Ben to pull up in his wheelchair.
When the Hassans moved into the house four years ago, they worked with the school to divide the house into a formal area for school events, and a home where Tom and Maggie and the kids could relax.
The house’s front door opens to a wooden-floored hallway with tastefully few decorations. Stairs climb to one side, the dining room opens to the other.
The other door, under the carport, opens to a foyer littered with shoes, boots, mittens and hats. That’s the part of the house where you’re not allowed to check your email on your phone while the rest of the room is talking. It’s the part of the house where there’s a ramp for Ben’s wheelchair and a soft, lived-on couch.
It’s the part of the house where the knickknacks are out of line on the shelves, and bits of fluff from toys destroyed by Honey Mae hide under the rocking chair.
“It allows us to just be us,” Hassan said. “It’s nice for the family to be able to come in and out and not have to go through a whole school function to be here in their own space, not feel like work life dominates everything.”
The family runs like a machine of independent pieces. Tom and Ben are the early birds, rising at about 5 a.m., with no alarm clocks and no coffee. Ben’s aide, Joyce, who has worked with the family for 23 years, arrives shortly after, and Tom heads to the gym and his office at Phillips Exeter, where he’s been principal for four years.
Maggie, and Meg when she’s home, get up a little later, and both love coffee.
In many ways, it will be easier for the family to stay connected after her term as governor starts, Hassan said.
There will be time to check in by phone with Tom as she’s driven to an event somewhere.
There will be photos of Ben and Honey Mae getting ready to head out for a walk, texted to her by a member of his team of aides. On nights when campaigning kept her away from home later than usual, someone would text her a photo of her slippers, waiting at home for her.
State Senate campaigns, like the ones she had run every two years since 2002, were “a definite adjustment for me,” she said. “You’re chief cook and bottle washer, too. There’s always more to do, there’s always another voter to talk to, there’s always another email you can write or phone call you can make. The sheer volume of tasks and figuring out how to prioritize it all can be overwhelming.
“There have been lots of Fridays where we would land here at 7:30 or 8, and some of us will have already eaten, and some of us not,” Hassan said. “With campaign life, in the last several months in particular, I wasn’t around for dinner much at all. . . . With the schedule the governor leads . . . there’s more of a routine than you get with campaign life. We’re looking forward to doing more things together again.”
The desire for quality time with her family meant that Hassan almost turned down the first political opportunity she was offered, a last-minute entry to a state Senate race.
She had 24 hours before the filing deadline, after another candidate had dropped out.
“I said to Tom, ‘There’s just no way we can do it.’ Meg was 9 and Ben was 13, but Tom said, ‘You’ll be good at it, and we’ll make it work.’
“I know that I wouldn’t have run much sooner than I did, and it came about because of the work I was doing as an advocate for families with disabilities. . . . I don’t know that I would have considered a statewide run at any time, or any kind of work at the intensity of being the governor until now. I think that’s typical for a lot of women. They balance it for a while and as the kids get older, they decide to get engaged more.”
That last statement, Hassan made to a reporter after pushing Ben in his wheelchair up the ramp from the kitchen to his bedroom, and after Meg and longtime family friend Liz Halliday curled up on the couch with Tom to watch the nightly news.
Gently but firmly ending the interview and the public part of her day, she turned to go back up the stairs from the cluttered mud room to the private, comfortable and relaxed retreat the Hassans have built for themselves and their children.
(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)