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General's wife getting to know Tampa

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE — At 3 o'clock on Monday, Holly Petraeus will stop whatever she's doing and observe a national moment of remembrance. She'd like you to do the same.

"Take one minute of the day to remember those fallen and to honor them," said Petraeus, wife of Army Gen. David Petraeus, the four-star commander who led the surge in Iraq and now runs U.S. Central Command.

Six months ago, Congress established a National Moment of Remembrance. But for Mrs. Petraeus, like her husband, the war and its costs are ever present.

She took time for an interview Friday in the general's MacDill office, amid a half-dozen telephones, two huge plasma television screens and hundreds of medals — familiar surroundings for someone whose military roots run deep.

At 56, Mrs. Petraeus can hardly imagine a life outside the military. Shake the family tree and she counts four generations of servicemen, "my great-grandfather, grandfather, father, husband, brother."

Son Stephen, 22, will join soon. Daughter Anne, 26, teaches English overseas.

"I am privileged to have two extraordinary men — my husband and my father — in my life," she said.

Her father, the late Army Gen. William A. Knowlton, was superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy when the couple met on a blind date in the fall of their senior year. She was a French and English major at Dickinson College. He was a West Point cadet.

"He had no idea the blind date was with 'the boss' daughter' until it was too late to get out of it!" she said in an e-mail.

They married in 1974, two months after he graduated at the top of his class. For nearly 35 years, Mrs. Petraeus has been holding down the home front as her husband climbed the ranks.

Asked for adjectives that best describe her, she supplies two: self-sufficient and reliable.

"I've never lived more then four years in one place," she said.

She has moved many times and lived multiple times in Washington, she said, but never gets rid of books. She favors biographies. She has been reading about Islam and the Middle East, but has not been to Iraq.

MacDill Air Force Base is home now, with the general spending only about one-quarter of his time here.

"I'm not as involved in Tampa as I would like to be. I do get out and about, but I have more exploring to do," she said, owning up just one trip to the beach.

A Paris-born military brat who has lived all over the world, Mrs. Petraeus experienced something uniquely Tampa in February, the Gasparilla parade. Watching the ruckus from a Bayshore Boulevard lawn as the guest of a physician and his family, she was behind a guarded fence but that was close enough.

Since December 2004, she has been executive director of the Better Business Bureau's Military Line, a division established to help service members become financially responsible.

"My husband was leading the 101st Airborne division command and I was living at Fort Campbell, Ky., during the first year of the Iraqi conflict," she recalled. "When he left, I took on a more public role and met with a lot of local legislators and business leaders."

One of them, the head of the BBB chapter, sought her advice to expand a national program.

"I didn't know it was a job interview," Mrs. Petraeus said.

A grant from the Boys & Girls Clubs started classes for teens to learn about budgeting, saving, ID theft and cell phone contracts, she said. A similar curriculum for adults followed, including credit and car buying.

"The program has taught more than 13,000 nationwide how to recognize bad deals and be smart consumers," she said.

She devotes three days a week to the BBB, telecommuting from Tampa and sometimes visiting other bases to talk up the classes.

The rest of the week she deals with personal paperwork and official demands, attending such events as Operation Helping Hands holiday dinner for wounded servicemen and their families at James A. Haley VA Medical Center. She and the general have visited patients there separately and together.

Not much stymies the wife of the man Newsweek named 16th-most powerful person in the world last year. But there was that time, back in 1995, when she was a contestant on the popular game show, Jeopardy.

The final question: "Who was the latest English king named in the title of a Shakespeare play?"

She'll never forget the answer. "It's an obscure one, Henry VIII," she says. She felt a lot better when her opponent went on to become the international tournament champ.

Asked if her life had changed much since Barack Obama became president, she said not really, but that she's looking forward to meeting Michelle Obama because they share an interest in the welfare of military families.

She is an adviser to the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation.

"I help brainstorm how to raise visibility and funds to provide scholarships to children of servicemen who died in combat and in training," she explained.

Amy Scherzer can be reached at or (813) 226-3332.

Fast Facts

Holly Petraeus' favorite quote, from the poem "Attitude" by Charles Swindoll: "Life is 10 percent what happens to me, and 90 percent how I react to it."

General's wife getting to know Tampa 05/23/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 23, 2009 10:17pm]
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