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For 24 years, as a presidential spouse, I accompanied my wife, Elaine, to campuses in Arizona, Alaska and Illinois. Then, after her retirement three years ago, we returned to our hometown, Philadelphia, where we now live, appropriately, on Columbus Boulevard. It’s our new world—one that, happily, allows time for reflecting on the past.
The years on various campuses were, for me, fairly busy and ultimately fulfilling. Initially, I’d been concerned about what was expected of me in my unofficial position. At the first professional conference I attended, someone advised me, in effect, to lie low and be inconspicuous. His rationale: spouses, like it or not, can become centers of attention. Better to go unobserved than unwittingly become focus of idle gossip.
Although some of my more cautious new colleagues opted to do that, I didn’t. It just wasn’t in my nature to be semiparanoid. While not excessively social, I was no introvert. Before arriving at our first campus, I had been, for many years, a high school English department head and an instructor in the education departments of several colleges. Basically, I enjoyed teaching because I felt I had practical insights that could help enrich the lives of my students.
At our first university, I quickly felt unproductive. Once a teacher, always a teacher, I suppose. But then, gradually, opportunities to tutor students in writing presented themselves, and my sense of purpose re-emerged. In addition, I had begun sampling the special elements that constitute a campus. Among other features, I observed the agreeable mix of people, the opulence of nature, the understated beauty of academic architecture. That leisurely process led to my enjoying, then incrementally feeling part of, a desirable new society.
Those times are now behind me, but I reminisce often about my days as a presidential spouse. Most memories are affectionate, but—let’s be practical—not all of them are. I hope the following reflections can be helpful for other presidential spouses who are new to this relatively underexplored but potentially satisfying role.
Things I Don’t Miss
- Campus life isn’t always idyllic. A few of the people you cross paths with can also be challenging. For instance, there may be a random schemer, someone ultra-ambitious who dispenses self-serving rumors and untruths behind a facade of blandness. Such individuals require activated sensors. From my experience with these people, I think they’ve learned that having been overwhelmed on campus by stellar faculty they have concluded their only path to success is deviousness.
- Some people may try to take advantage of your proximity to the president. No longer will I be seen by some people as an “influencer,” whose recommendation to Elaine about an issue involving university business would impact her decision. I wondered why in my first year I became part of faculty groups with an intense interest in the university budget. Remarkably enough, at budget time I was treated to a variety of semiskilled productions about how essential that extra $X million was for that biology program.
As a presidential spouse, my response to such attempts was generally something like, “She takes my advice as frequently as Phoenix has a white Christmas.” If that proved too abstract, I explained that each of us has a private professional domain the other doesn’t encroach upon, a principle we always honored
- Plans? What plans? Memorial Day weekend in Illinois was always state budget-deadline weekend, with the Legislature sometimes literally stopping the clock in the statehouse so that they had an extra hour or two to finalize the appropriations. This governmental practice directly collided with a long family tradition of greeting the summer at the beach. Goodbye beach, hello Springfield.
Now that Elaine has retired from presidencies, we don’t have to call audibles relating to nonuniversity events. We can actually follow through on our plans to visit our grandkids, confident that no unexpected professional demands will scuttle them.
- You’ll say many goodbyes. Campuses are receptacles of the ephemeral. Parts we value now may be gone tomorrow. People we care about—students, faculty, staff—will graduate or move on, abruptly terminating meaningful contacts and causing feelings of some sadness and regret.
What I Miss
- Life was never the clichéd “same old, same old.” The academic year ideally mixed past and present. Each September, the cast was comfortingly familiar, but the plot varied. I always found fresh challenges as well as opportunities to revise less than successful responses to old ones. Before my exposure to the realities of first-generation students’ problems, I had always given myself credit for understanding and sympathizing with them. I had no idea of the depth and variety of social outrages, including food and shelter insecurities, that these students were facing. Working with them informally expanded my perception of the remarkable challenges these students were overcoming.
- Being on a campus is reasonably tranquil and reassuring. While you always encounter new things, there’s an order, a predictability, a positive momentum about living on a campus, occasional disruptions notwithstanding. Seasonal varieties of natural beauty, along with the reassuring regularity of the academic calendar, can provide a calming backdrop to a usually comfortable realm of existence.
- The campus was fueled by varied senses of purpose. People traveled to classrooms, to the library and to study groups in their quests for goal attainment. Destinations, both intrinsic and extrinsic varied widely, but the environment was upbeat and encouraging. While there was always time for measured sociability, a feeling of productive energy permeated surroundings.
- The new students arriving on campus each year were increasingly, and wonderfully, diverse. The designation “college student” has greatly expanded. For example, no longer applicable only to recent high school grads, it encompasses numbers of adults, including military service veterans and others who have decided later rather than sooner that college is for them. To me, they embodied courage and tenacity and an unwillingness to settle for less than they could be. Sometimes in our conversations, I wondered whether I’d have their guts and determination. The regular presence of this group was inspirational, fueling my hopes for the future.
- Cultural events took place regularly. Music, drama, art shows, outside speakers and discussions—they all contributed to widening intellectual and aesthetic horizons, an achievement important then and even more so now. They represented that civil conversation contributes more to society than today’s growing vituperation.
- The opportunities for personal engagement were myriad. I especially enjoyed working informally with students on their writing. I was not an authority figure, so there were no obstacles to frank, constructive communication.
At the same time, an early lesson I learned was that a presidential spouse isn’t just a random figure on the campus. I had many events to attend, people to meet and spontaneous interactions to engage in. I got to know an incredible array of interesting people from various fields—which sometimes can be more difficult to do outside academe. During honorary degree events, I had a chance to talk poetry with Nikki Giovanni and to explore presidential history with Michael Beschloss.
The individuals I interacted with made up what’s generally called the campus community. Only recently have I tried to identify what nurtures so vibrant an environment where, most often, minds don’t have to be changed in order to be respected. A campus is a complex organization composed of many activities all directed to the development of thinkers and the search for truth.
Of course, other presidential spouses will have their own lists. But, I can assure you that, from my perspective, the hits of presidential spousedom outnumber the misses—far more than I’ve been able to indicate in this brief essay.
And if I’d leave you with any advice, I’d say that I approached the position as any sensible individual should: with care and the determination to be as helpful as I could be—as well as with an open mind and willingness to always learn new things. That required some personal tailoring, but those years justified everything I invested in them. And looking back, I realize things went well mostly because I was as much a student as anyone else on those campuses.