The sun shines through the front doors of Bolivar High School as a team of school staff hangs square, red signs from the ceiling.
A few people quietly chat as they set up tables covered with bright red T-shirts and ball caps.
It’s a scene of quiet but focused work.
On the eve of his 2020 election campaign announcement, Gov. Mike Parson, who has served as Missouri’s 57th governor since June 2018 following the resignation of former Gov. Eric Greitens, makes his way out of the school’s auditorium after practicing his upcoming speech.
Surrounded by a handful of his closest advisers — likely people he also calls friends — Parson and his wife, Teresa, talk over the final details of his upcoming campaign announcement in hushed tones.
Wearing a T-shirt and ball cap, Parson then sits down at a round table in the school’s lobby, a marker and a handful of hats to autograph in hand.
He says it feels good to be home.
“I feel good to be home on my home turf, I can tell you that,” he says. “You know, you have a lot of people always trying to convince you where you outta be. I think the reality of it, there was never any doubt where I wanted to do it at. When I made the decision to make the announcement, I wanted it to be at home.”
“This is home, it’ll always be home,” Teresa adds. “There’s just no other option.”
Parson says that hometown connection is important to the couple.
“The majority of the people who come here tomorrow aren’t going to call me governor. The majority of the people are going to call me Mike. And when somebody does call me governor, we’re going to know they’re outside of this community, to be right honest about it,” he says with a laugh.
The governor says it’s the people from his hometown “who really know us the best and understand who we are.”
“It’s good to come back home, remember where you came from,” he adds. “You know, Bolivar’s a small-knit community.”
And it’s a community full of people who inspired him, Parson says.
“There’s numerous people here in the town who’ve had an influence on my life,” he says.
‘Heart and soul’
But, on a larger scale, Parson says Bolivar represents even more for him.
He says Bolivar is “the heart and soul of who we are in Missouri.”
“I think family values,” he says. “I think neighborly values. I think good-hearted people, willing to reach out and help somebody in their time of need.”
Those are values, Parson says, he takes with him every time he returns to Jefferson City.
“When I go to state government, become the governor, all those things you have to do daily — make decisions and try to figure out, OK, what is the best thing for today,” he says. “I think those common core roots that I had here help me every day.”
Parson says he thinks on those “basic values” he learned every day when he goes to work.
“I look at my Christian values, my family values,” he says. “The love of state and the love of country is always important to me. Again, I just remember at the end of the day, the titles are not what’s important.”
Instead, he says it’s about being a public servant — “doing for other people what for some reason they can’t do for themselves.”
Having spent a large chunk of his adult life as a public servant — including his time in the U.S. Army, as Polk County sheriff, 133rd district state representative and 28th district state senator — Parson says his background has prepared him for the job he holds today.
He says he saw “a lot of things,” and “handled tough situations” in his early years in the military, as sheriff and as a local business owner.
“I just stayed on focus of what my dedication was,” he says. “It was always about trying to serve people — being a good public servant. I think that’s one of the things I’ve been able to do all my life that I really think is important.”
Recognizing he and Teresa have been fortunate in their own careers, Parson says the couple wants “to make sure our kids and our grandkids have those same opportunities all of us did.”
“Now, what they do with them, I don’t know,” he adds. “But the idea is to give them the opportunity.”
While he hopes to give future generations opportunities, Parson says he believes it’s really all about hard work.
“I know what it’s like to not have much, and Teresa kind of grew up in that,” he says. “Our families, by all means, didn’t have a lot. But you had everything you needed.”
He says he tried to teach his own two children the value of hard work as they grew up, saying with a chuckle, “all of a sudden, they turned 16 years old.”
“I could have easily gone out and bought them both a car,” he says. “We didn’t. We just said, ‘Look, you’ve got to earn it. You’ve got to go out there and work to get yourself a car.’”
Parson adds “nothing’s free in life.”
“We shouldn’t expect anything free,” he says. “And as governor, you’ve got to make sure you remember — you can’t fix all the problems all the time. There is nothing whatsoever free in government, but at the end of the day, somebody’s paying for that.”
‘A tough decision’
Despite his passion for the state and for future generations, Parson says his first 15 months in office haven’t been without challenges.
Demands on the couple’s time have been their greatest struggle, they say.
“You’re driven by a schedule, you’re driven by demand,” Parson says. “There’s hardly any way around it. And where I think that has an effect is my family. I don’t get to see the grandkids. I don’t get to come here and just be out there working the field and think, ‘OK, I’ve got all day to do this.’”
Teresa says the couple deeply pondered that challenge when considering an election campaign.
“I think for me, that was a tough decision to make,” she says. “Do we want to do four more years of this? Time away from our children and grandchildren.”
However, Teresa says while the job requires sacrifices — like lost time with family — it also offers great rewards.
So far, she said the greatest reward is “meeting all the people we have across the state of Missouri and realizing there are so many good people here.”
Kicking off the campaign
While the governor finds value in looking back at local roots and reflecting on his first 15 months in office, he also has his sights set squarely on the future.
Just as he promised in his first gubernatorial primary bid before transitioning to the lieutenant governor race in July 2015, Parson says he plans to run a positive campaign.
“We’re going to talk about why I’m qualified to be governor,” he says. “I don’t care about any of my opponents. They’ve got to go out there and tell their sides.”
He says he believes it’s a bad sign when a candidate starts off with a negative campaign.
“People want to know who I am,” he says. “I believe that. They want to know why they should vote for me.”
He says his record speaks for itself.
“What I’ve done in legislature, what I’ve done and said, it’s all on record,” he says. “One of the things I’m proud of, I kept my word that entire time. I am who I am. I don’t have to be no one else.”
It’s clear during Sunday’s event, Parson’s supporters — who showed up in droves — like him just as he is.
One person, Linda Campbell, who is a former educator, a small business owner and beef cattle operator, says she connects personally with Parson and his message.
“I’ve known him for a long time, and as a farmer, I know he’ll have our interests in mind,” Campbell says. “When you feel like you have things that are important to you in common with a candidate, you feel like your interests will be protected.”
Barb Elliott of Buffalo echoes Campbell’s sentiment.
“I just think he’s a very fine person,” she says. “He seems like one of us.”
Sitting next to Elliott, Michael Stanek, a Polk County resident, says he’s known Parson his entire life.
“He’s a friend,” Stanek says. “I was at his rally last time, when he was going to run for governor, and decided to run for lieutenant governor.”
Near the auditorium’s front row, Teresa’s cousin, Glenda Bays, sits alongside other Parson family members.
Bays said Parson is “just as common as anybody.”
“That’s what makes him a good governor,” she says. “He cares about what people think. We’re ready for him to be governor again.”
Another supporter, who declined to share his name, predicts Sunday’s event will lead to a national campaign announcement in the future — simply put, “Parson and Pence.”