By Joanne Kaufman Barbara Kleban Mills
December 12, 1988 12:00 PM

It sounds like the premise for a sitcom: When his wife becomes Governor of a midwestern state, a hotshot insurance executive has to find ways of coping on the home front. Forthcoming episodes deal with husband learning to cook, husband (henceforth to be known as First Gentleman) being seated with the wives at the Governors’ conference, and husband deploring the decor of the Governor’s mansion.

Turn off the laugh track, folks, this is no sitcom. It’s the very happy real-life story of Nebraska’s first female Governor. And something like it was bound to happen as soon as it was announced that Republican Kay Orr, now 49, would face Democrat Helen Boosalis, now 69, in the 1986 gubernatorial race. Orr won, becoming the first Republican woman in the country to run a state. Her husband, Bill, 53, a senior vice-president at the Woodmen Accident and Life Company in Lincoln, suddenly had to worry about the house while Kay worried about the senate.

The transformation actually began in 1981. That year Kay—who had long been active as a campaign coordinator and party fund-raiser—was appointed state treasurer, and it became clear that housekeeping would have to be an either Orr proposition. “I taught Bill that being patient and understanding about my job was not simply waiting for me to come home and fix his meal,” says Kay. “That was very nice of him, but he had to take it one step further and fix himself his own meal.”

It was not always thus. While the Orrs’ two children, John, now 28, a grain trader, and Suzanne, 26, a new mother, were growing up, Kay—despite her party duties—was the quintessential homemaker. “I was one of those fully devoted wives and mothers,” remembers Kay of the years when Bill traveled frequently as an insurance salesman. “I mean I mowed the lawn, put up the screens and cleaned the garage. I did it all because his job was so demanding. That was my way of telling him that I loved him.” Bill would venture into the kitchen only once a year, to make Kay a birthday cake from scratch. “Every year he’d have to ask anew, ‘Is the teaspoon the little one or the big one?’ ” Kay recalls. And every year he’d leave a colossal mess. Now, says Bill, a veteran of many meat loaves, “I’m much neater than Kay in the kitchen—she can mess it up just cutting a piece of cheese.”

The decision to make a gubernatorial bid was unanimous, the Orrs say—hashed out in 48 hours before the filing deadline. Bill had “hit his stride” in business, Kay says, “and could give me the kind of support I need. This couldn’t have been done 20 years ago.” Indeed, Kay credits Bill with teaching her to campaign. At one early stop on the rubber-chicken circuit, she recalls, her husband urged her to get up and start circulating.

“But they’re still eating,” said Kay. “I can’t disturb them.”

“That’s the perfect time,” he replied. “They’re captive.”

“I thought it was a bit rude,” says Kay. “But he dragged me out of my chair and took me around table by table, and I introduced myself and made small talk. I had to learn to do it. And now I feel quite comfortable with it.”

Bill, for his part, is comfortable with the role of consort and official spouse. He has had breakfast with Kitty Dukakis, and at a White House dinner that found Kay seated with Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Bill chatted with Denis Thatcher. “I told him I admire him very much,” says Bill, who likes to boast that he belongs to the most exclusive club in the nation—the R.G.H. Club for Republican Governors’ Husbands. So far he’s the only member. The nation’s only other First Gentleman, Dr. Arthur Kunin, can’t join because his wife, Madeleine, is the Democratic Governor of Vermont. Nonetheless, the two men seek each other out at gubernatorial gatherings. “We sit in the back corner and talk,” Bill has said. “Sometimes they have to shush us.”

But no, they don’t exchange recipes, though Bill certainly has some to offer. In the manner of other state spouses before him, he’s writing a cookbook. Titled The First Gentleman’s Cookbook, it is a compilation of the recipes of such well-known Nebraskans as Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett and super-investor Warren Buffet. It’s written in a no-nonsense style. (“Men,” exhorts one recipe, “this means use your hands and ‘squish’ the ingredients as though you were making a mud pie.”) Proceeds from the book will go toward renovating the 31-year-old Governor’s mansion, which is decorated, says Bill, “in what I call early Holiday Inn.”

Since a chef comes with the mansion, Bill has been able to hold on to his day job. These days he demonstrates his mastery of domestic science mostly on weekends. Some Sundays the first couple visits Suzanne, who lives with her husband, James, and their 6-month-old son in the Orrs’ old house—which gives Kay an opportunity to play homemaker again. On one recent visit she got down on hands and knees to clean the bottom of the shower door. Her mother, says Suzanne “is an encouragement to moms who are at home, to see that she has had both a career and a home life.”

Kay’s encouragement came from her parents. Father Ralph, a farm implements’ dealer in Burlington, Iowa, was a city council member, and her mother, Sadie, was active in local politics. “They talked about the joys of giving,” she recalls, “and the rewards of your effort.” William Dayton Orr, the son of a high school coach, was born 200 miles away from Kay in Waukon, Iowa. A childhood victim of spinal polio, Bill recovered so thoroughly that he played quarterback on the high school football team, guard in basketball and ran the 440-yard dash in track. He met Kay at a track meet and married her two years later.

A moderate conservative grappling with tough tax issues, Orr won’t say whether she’ll seek reelection. But Kay and Bill agree that the Governor’s job has made changes in their relationship that will outlast any electoral term. “We’ll never return to square one,” says Bill. “I think the roles will be something between what they are and what they were prior to the time Kay became state treasurer.”

But for now Kay’s job as Nebraska’s $58,000-a-year chief executive takes precedence. Ensconced in the back seat of their chauffeured limousine one recent morning, both Kay and Bill had important calls to make. “Kay made her call from the car,” says Bill. “Mine had to wait until I got to the office. There was no question her call was more important.”

Kay was equally considerate when she appeared at a supermarket to make a speech about agriculture and was presented with a BUY NEBRASKA T-shirt. “Thank you,” said the Governor. “Now, how about one for Bill, because he’s the one who does the grocery shopping.”

—Joanne Kaufman, and Barbara Kleban Mills in Lincoln