INDIANAPOLIS — With her tenure as Indiana's first lady almost complete, Cheri Daniels says she has no regrets. She has found happiness serving the people of the Hoosier State by approaching the job on her own terms.
Despite being under the media microscope, Daniels has stayed true to herself both in and out of the political spotlight.
Daniels never sought the position of first lady. In fact, at first, she was quite hesitant of the role. But when her husband Mitch Daniels became governor of Indiana in 2005, the office found her.
“That's the funny thing in politics. In no other arena does the spouse suddenly have a role,” Daniels said. “The good thing about it is that there is no job description for first lady so you can kind of make it what you want it to be. And that's what I've done. I'm very happy with how I've done it.”
Her enjoyment has come by being able to set her own agenda and hours. Although provided with a small staff, Daniels receives no salary for her duties. Every event visited or speech given is on a purely volunteer basis.
But she says her experiences are worth more than money.
“The most enjoyable part of this job is that you meet so many different people from all walks of life all across the state,” Daniels said. “It's given me an opportunity to travel from the top to the bottom of the state, east to west, and meet a lot of people and share their interests and their concerns.”
Of course, being first lady has its perks. Daniels, a country music fan, mentioned her excitement about meeting Keith Urban. However, she said Peyton Manning is the most memorable person she's met.
“In the day of professional athletes being very successful and then doing very awful things, here's somebody who gives back so much more than people even know and he doesn't want any credit for it. He's done a lot of great things here in Indianapolis,” she said.
In addition to meeting a wide variety of people, Daniels also relishes working with everyday Hoosiers through her public service initiatives. An avid reader, she's traveled the state emphasizing the importance of literacy to elementary school children. She also sponsors a food drive every February that benefits families in need.
But Daniels' Heart to Heart initiative — a program that educates women about heart disease and the things they can do to improve their heart health — remains her favorite. Besides visiting colleges and bringing awareness to young co-eds about heart-related issues, the first lady also sponsors the Heartland Walk for Health at the Indiana State Fair.
She walks 10 miles most every day for exercise.
“My mother had heart disease. That's when I started learning that heart disease was the No. 1 killer of women. Most women think it's breast cancer, but heart disease kills more women than the top five cancers combined,” Daniels said.
“It has been really rewarding. I never think of myself as making a difference in someone's life but last year at the [state] fair after the walk I had probably four or five people come up to me and say 'You are my idol. I came out here three years ago. I couldn't even walk one lap around and now I can do two laps.'”
Daniels doesn't just visit the fair on the day of the walk. She attends all 17 days. She lists the yearly event as one of the most fun things about her position. Through her involvement with the State Fair, she has milked cows, won a watermelon seed-spitting contest and calmed a squealing pig, earning her the title of “The Pig Whisperer.”
“I'm a big fan of the State Fair. I do just about anything they ask me to do,” she said.
Also gratifying to Daniels are the radio segments called Cheri's Chores she co-hosts with Dave O'Brien on 97.1 HANK FM. Each month, the audience suggests new tasks for her to learn and complete, all on camera. For her latest assignment, she became a zookeeper for a few hours. She also has learned to harvest shrimp, fight fires, bartend and drive a dump truck, among other things.
“I think that's what people like about it is that it's not really cream-puffy stuff. You know, you roll up your sleeves. You get dirty sometimes,” she said.
A job Daniels didn't need to learn was how to be a reporter. Before marrying her husband, she graduated from Indiana University with a journalism degree. She said things have changed since she studied media years ago.
“The biggest difference I see in media today is that it's not always hard facts. It's somebody that's talked to somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody,” she said.
“It's definitely more about personal and not about factual. It's funny because that seems to be almost exclusive to political reporting,” Daniels sad. “I think in politics it does get a lot more personal. It becomes very negative
sometimes and I think that's too bad because I think that deters really good, quality people from wanting to be in public service.”
Daniels also disputes the common theme in news reports that she's an extremely private person. In addition to her radio spots, she makes regular public appearances.
“I don't think that I'm intensely private. I think that is a misnomer. I think the media knew that I was reluctant to be the first lady and I think they decided that I was intensely private,” she said. “I'm very protective of my family and I try to keep their lives more private. We don't parade our family out in front of the media all the time.
“I wouldn't say that I was overly private. I just think I'm probably more particular about what I do.”
Last year, the media was awash with speculation of an impending White House run for Gov. Daniels. Many news sources reported that the first lady's reluctance was the deciding factor in his subsequent decision not to seek the office, an assertion Mrs. Daniels maintains is untrue.
“I can't say that there have been many major decisions that Mitch has let me decide what he is going to do. Did I want him to do that? No. But it was a family decision,” she said. “Everybody got to say what they thought about it. Nobody was in favor of it.
“Do I think he would have been a good president? Yes, I do. I think he would have been one of the best. Do I think it would be a good thing for our family? No, I don't because I think you have to basically give up everything personal to do that. And it's not just for four years or eight years, it's really for the rest of your life,” she said.
Daniels said she doesn't have an interest in politics. She and her husband rarely speak of his political decisions and she's seldom seen on the campaign trail.
“That's the one thing that I've prided myself in; I'm not political,” Daniels said. “I'm not going to go out and stump for a candidate or a bill or anything else, not just because it's not my interest, I'm not knowledgeable about those things.”
Accepting her likes and dislikes has helped make the job of first lady much more palatable. She advises future governors' spouses to not ignore this when planning for the office.
“If I had to go to a political dinner every night, I'd be so unhappy. So, find something about it that you can really put your heart and soul into and make it enjoyable. Make it fun. And I have to say, I really didn't think I'd have any fun. I really didn't. I thought, this is going to be awful,” she said.
“But I've had so much fun and I've met some really great people and I've had the opportunity to do things I never would have had been able to do as just Cheri Daniels.”
Soon, Daniels will return to being just Cheri Daniels. She looks forward to spending time with her family, including her four daughters, the youngest of which recently became engaged. She also has a 5-month-old granddaughter that she loves to baby-sit.
Cheri Daniels declined to comment on the recent hiring of Mitch Daniels as Purdue University's next president, saying it was his place to discuss the position.
Daniels said she hopes to golf more, a perennial dream she rarely accomplished while serving the state. Reuniting with friends and increased travel also top the list of things she wants to accomplish in her new downtime.
As for her tenure as first lady, Daniels credits living the life that she wanted as a key to her happiness and success.
“I think you have to just be determined to be true to yourself,” she said. “It's kind of like Mitch has done. He has done things that a lot of people would be afraid to initiate and try to do because politically it might not be popular, but it was the right thing to do.
“I think that's what you have to do in life.”