After three years of dating, he asked her to marry him. He popped the question in a Camaro parked in an Alexandria grocery store lot over a four-pack of “cheap ale.”
“It was very simple,” she recalled. “Our life always was.”
Nearly 35 years later, he was carrying that bride over the threshold of the Virginia governor’s mansion. In between, the man who wooed in a parking lot collected master’s and law degrees, practiced law, served as a state delegate and state attorney general. One step at a time, up educational, professional and political ladders, he reached the pinnacle of Capitol Square.
For Maureen McDonnell, it was one big jump.
She was one of nine born to a homemaker and a State Department Foreign Service officer who, his obituary noted, was haunted by memories of fighting in World War II. She was a native of Fairfax County, and she had also lived in Mexico, where her father was stationed for a time.
The family had no dishwasher and just one car — a Country Squire station wagon with wood panels — that they all piled into for Sunday drives. There was a lot of music in the house, and her father loved to sing.
“Even when he worked in the yard, he’d whistle,” Maureen McDonnell said in her 2010 interview. “I felt like the von Trapp family, only we didn’t have the money.”
She continued to live modestly in married life, personally spraying for bugs outside her house in a neighborhood where most people hired exterminators, recalled Elaine Kubiak, a friend.
Robert McDonnell worked as a lawyer, but he took a lot of time off to campaign for delegate, represent Virginia Beach in the General Assembly and handle constituent concerns year round. Maureen McDonnell didn’t finish college, and she helped support the family as she stayed home with five children, three girls and twin boys. She sewed curtains and ran a succession of home-based businesses.
“I was amazed [at] the way she could keep everything together,” said Teri Rigell, the wife of Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), who met the McDonnells two decades ago when they walked into her husband’s car dealership for a used Aerostar van.
When her husband became governor, Maureen McDonnell suddenly found herself in the spotlight — a mixed blessing for someone who didn’t shy from attention as a “Redskinette” but who was less sure of herself in the role of first lady.
At a mansion luncheon with Richmond socialites early in her tenure, Maureen McDonnell arrived far more casually dressed than her guests, so she went upstairs and changed clothes, according to two people familiar with the event who spoke anonymously so they would not offend the first lady.