Honey Alexander at the 2019 opening of the Honey Alexander Center at Nashville nonprofit Family and Children's Service and Portrait of Honey Alexander as Tennessee First Lady in 1983
Maryville, Tenn. – October 30, 2022 – Former Tennessee First Lady Leslee Kathryn Buhler “Honey” Alexander, 77, passed away peacefully surrounded by her family on October 29 at home outside Maryville. Her family said, “Our dear ‘Honey’ was funny, loving, always caring, unselfish and courageous. We are so fortunate to have spent our lives with her. We will miss her every day.”
She was the wife of former Tennessee Governor and U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander.
In 2017, when Nashville’s Family & Children Service named its new home “The Honey Alexander Center,” the organization said: “Honey Alexander has dedicated her life to the service of others.”
Honey, as everyone called her, was nicknamed perfectly by her older brother when she was a baby. She was born October 12, 1945, in Los Angeles, California, the second of five children of Frank and Bette Jo Simpson Buhler. When she was two years old, her family moved to Victoria, Texas. She graduated from St Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, Texas, in 1963. Honey graduated from Smith College in 1967 with a major in American Studies and joined the Washington, D.C., staff of Texas U.S. Senator John G. Tower.
That summer, during a softball game between the Tower staff and the staff of Tennessee Senator Howard Baker, Jr, she met Baker staffer Lamar Alexander. He claims that she slid into first base. She said he imagined that. Nevertheless, 18 months later, on January 4, 1969, they were married in Victoria. They lived first in Washington, D.C., while her husband worked at the White House for President Richard M. Nixon.
In August 1970, when Honey moved to Nashville with her husband and 11-month-old son, Drew, she began to focus her attention on efforts relating to the health and wellbeing of families and children. “Strong families make strong children,” she said in 2017. As Tennessee’s First Lady from 1979 to 1987, she led the statewide Healthy Children Initiative with the goal of providing prenatal health care for every child. She was a member of the 1985-1986 Southern Regional Task Force on Infant Mortality, the Governor’s Task Forces on Day Care and on Youth Alcohol and Drug Abuse, and the U.S. Health Secretary’s Council on Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.
In 1976 Honey co-founded Leadership Nashville. She served Family & Children Service as president of its board and chaired multiple events. She also served on the boards of the Adventure Science Center, Vanderbilt’s Kennedy Center, the Junior League of Nashville, the Dede Wallace Center and the Hermitage. Nationally, she has been vice-chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and board member of Family Service America and the National Archives Foundation.
During the dedication of the Honey Alexander Center in 2019, she reflected on the work she’d witnessed by physicians and mental health professionals and adoption professionals, saying, “It is not what I have given over the years but what I’ve gained from working with such inspirational people.”
She was a co-founder of two successful businesses: In 1976, Blackberry Farm, and, in 1987, Corporate Child Care Inc., which ten years later merged with Bright Horizons to become the world’s largest provider of worksite child care.
Honey was an effective advocate and partner in her husband’s public service. She campaigned during Lamar’s six races for governor and U.S. Senator, served eight years as First Lady, moved to Knoxville when he was University of Tennessee president and then to Washington, D.C., when he was United States Education Secretary and Senator. During 1994-1996, she traveled on her own to 80 different Iowa communities in his campaign for President.
In each of these roles, she always was smiling and thinking first of others. She was proper without pretense, demonstrating an unerring sense of what was appropriate whether it was as hostess for a state dinner for auto executives, or a Bonne Belle Run for women, or for the National Governors Association meeting in Nashville.
But the limelight was not Honey’s favorite place to be. During the 1996 New Hampshire presidential primary, Larry King asked her in a CNN interview: “Do you really want to be First Lady and live in the White House?” Honey answered quickly, “No.” She was happiest with her children and grandchildren, planting daffodils or tulips or roses, enjoying Mexican food with her friends and reading historical novels.
She arrived at the Governor’s residence in 1979 with Drew, 9, Leslee, 6, and Kathryn, 4. Five months later, Will was born. That meant, she said, “managing litters of puppies and kittens and guinea pigs and trying to make this a real home.”
“There are lots of days when the children’s rooms don’t look perfect and neither do I,” she wrote in 1986. “I feel much less compelled to weed the gardens or clean the garage myself—I’d really rather be jogging. And the most important facets of my life remain the same: supporting Lamar, mothering the children, helping others, nurturing good physical, spiritual and emotional and intellectual health in me and those closet to me.”
She loved to jog, 3-5 miles on most days. Neighbors to the Governor’s residence became accustomed to her running on Curtiswood Lane followed by state troopers in patrol cars. She participated in an Outward Bound Course.
After the family’s eight years in the “fishbowl of the governor’s residence,” Honey insisted that they “get away from it all” and the Alexanders moved to Sydney, Australia, where they lived for six months “to try to get our feet back on the ground.”
At 8, Leslee wrote in a school essay, “My mother is the lioness who keeps the family in hand and allows us to live and grow.”
Honey Alexander is survived by her husband of 53 years, Lamar Alexander; three children, Leslee Alexander of Maryville, Kathryn Alexander, of Briarcliff Manor, NY, and Will Alexander, of Nashville; nine grandchildren; her brothers Frank Buhler, Jr. and Bruce Buhler; and her sisters Blanche Carter and Jessica Weiland. A fourth child, Drew Alexander of Nashville, died on December 31, 2021.
She has been a generous and long time member of Christ (Episcopal) Church Cathedral in Nashville.
The Alexander family expresses its gratitude to Joe Black, Karl Fillauer, Jannell Costa, April Davidson, Harley Raposa, Jo Mullins, Sandy Abel, Reynard Graham and Drs. David Rankin, John Sergent, Andrew Shinar, Tom Davis and Dale Berry for their loving care for Honey.
There will be a private graveside service for family members at the family cemetery at Hesse Creek Chapel in Walland, TN, with the Rev. William J. Carl, Honey’s brother-in-law, officiating.
There will be a visitation on Friday, December 9 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Honey Alexander Center, 2400 Clifton Avenue, Nashville 37209. There will be a visitation on Saturday, December 10 at 1 p.m. at Christ Church Cathedral, 900 Broadway, Nashville 37203 followed by a memorial service at 3 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Honey Alexander Center. Smith Funeral & Cremation Service, Maryville, 865-983-1000, www.SmithFuneralandCremation.com