News & Features » Miscellany

Part 2

Down to Earth

by

comment
Another day, another audience. All await Virginia's first lady. When she arrives, luncheon can be served.

It's a special springtime celebration. Ten area teen-agers who have battled cancer will celebrate their high school graduation at VCU's Medical College of Virginia. Relatives and friends mill about the glass-walled lobby of the Health Sciences Building overlooking the Egyptian Building. Staff and volunteers scurry toward the buffet table with impressive-looking luncheon platters. Guests trickle in and claim seats at tables as butterfly-shaped, helium-filled balloons drift overhead.

Gilmore strolls in with a small entourage that includes a plainclothed state police officer and an aide from the Executive Mansion.

Aside from hospital officials, few note the presence of the blonde, petite woman who will address them after lunch.

Perhaps in deference to the graduates, but more likely because it's neither her style to press the flesh unduly nor push herself on those who share her airspace, Gilmore stands off to the side. As guests load their plates with chicken and chunks of fresh fruit, she chats breezily with the few folks who do approach her.

It's not that she's standoffish or the least bit shy. She's just as comfortable giving up the spotlight as she is standing in it. And on this particular morning, she's very much one with her audience. She has had her own bouts with critical illness. In high school and then again in college, she was treated successfully for Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer of the lymph nodes. This, of course gives this occasion added significance. She greets each student individually, poses for individual photos. The students know she understands. She's been there.

Already that morning Gilmore had been driven to Ashland to perform her final task of the spring semester, submitting final grades for the classics course she teaches.

So, as of today, school's out for the first lady, but not for her boys. Jay, 17, is a junior at Henrico's Mills Godwin High. Ashton, 13, attends St. Christopher's. Since their sons still are in school she chose not to accompany her husband on a trade mission to Asia.

But in July she and the governor will be very much the political couple. Both are delegates to the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Her husband has come out early and loudly for George W. Bush. "He'll have a very active role at the convention," says Gilmore.

Gilmore is one of the last to go through the graduation luncheon buffet line. She finds a table and eats her lunch — largely unnoticed. No working the room for this governor's wife.

"She doesn't need the crowd," says Benjamin Warthen, a Richmond lawyer who has known the Gilmores for almost 20 years and who was once the governor's law partner. "She's no Jackie Kennedy seeking adulation. She's very much at ease and puts everybody else at ease."

Immediately after guiding the fellows through the mansion, the former Roxane Gatling of Suffolk, daughter of a state highway inspector and a school teacher, sits in a straight-backed armchair in the ladies parlor. Martin "Tutti" Townes, head butler, whose family's association with the mansion goes back five administrations, delivers a Diet Coke in a crystal glass on a silver tray. Gilmore discusses life in the mansion and her considerable efforts to give it new life structurally, historically and visually.

The sun-filled front room all but glistens as a result of the recent renovation. Its newly cleaned carved mantel reveals long-forgotten classical detailing. The wallpaper is topped by an entablature of colorful posies. Oil portraits of such Virginians as Pocahontas and Corrine Melchers, a founder of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, hang on the walls.

What's unseen are renovations to the mansion that shored up its floors, raised the ceilings in the basement and made the building accessible for the disabled.

The makeover also enhanced the top-floor family quarters' livability for 21st-century occupants.

"At one time all there was was a toaster oven on the back of a toilet," she says, incredulously. Now there is a family room and a small kitchen (a professionally equipped catering kitchen was installed in the basement).

Gilmore relished the renovation challenge because it incorporated her interest in history, the classics and archaeology and offered new things to learn.

When the construction required the Gilmores to move to temporary quarters on Cary Street Road, she says she wasn't sure Jay and Ashton would want to come back downtown. But then, as when they'd first moved to Capitol Square, the boys adjusted well.

"It is isolating here — all of a sudden there are no neighbors," she says, referring to the move from suburban Richmond to the heart of downtown. "But they've had friends visit here and for the kids it's like a new neighborhood. I was afraid they wouldn't want to live here."

For her part, she says the constant lack of privacy is something hard to get used to. "You're never alone. There are always police and staff. Even when you're riding in a car, someone is with you."

Gilmore lights up when discussion turns to her participation which began June 12 in the Jamestown Field School which is excavating an unmarked cemetery in Jamestown. The project is sponsored by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

"I applied like anyone else," she says.

"I remember learning in the fourth grade that the fort at Jamestown washed into the [James] river. Now they're finding out the orientation and artifacts. It's great to be a part of that."

"We're finding a number of things from the top layer, which suggest it's going to be a fruitful place," she said after three days on the project.

One of Gilmore's first experiences in archaeology occurred when she was a history and anthropology major at the University of Virginia. She joined an archaeological dig when the Virginia Department of Transportation, while building an interstate interchange near Interstate 64 in Albemarle, discovered an 18th-century fort. She has subsequently earned an M.A. in ancient history from U.Va. and is working on her Ph.D.

She and the future governor met while in college at a Jefferson Debating Society party at Jefferson Hall. Her roommate had known Gilmore, but Roxane didn't hesitate, however, when he telephoned and asked her out. The date was a harbinger of things to come. Together they campaigned door-to-door for J. Kenneth Robinson, a congressional candidate. "We did go to a barbecue afterwards, however," she says laughing.

They dated for three years while he was in law school; they married in 1977. When he began a general law practice in Richmond, she taught school briefly at Manchester Middle School in Chesterfield and worked in the tax department at Ethyl.

But being from a family of educators and having a father who enthusiastically stressed the classics and reading, teaching seemed to stick.

"I like teaching. I like the students. It's my personal thing. It's what I was trained to do. I get a lot of satisfaction from doing what I was trained to do."

Since becoming first lady, Gilmore says her weekly schedule has the capacity to pull her in disparate directions. Teaching, however, is a rudder. "I like teaching because it structures my week."

And how does one prepare for the job of first lady? Gilmore shrugs at the suggestion that the role of first lady is taxing or requires any specific skill. She says she hasn't consulted previous first ladies about life in the executive mansion or even its history. But this spring Gilmore was joined by former first ladies Baliles, Lynda Robb and Susan Allen at a Habitat for Humanity construction site on Hull Street to build a house. Gilmore has returned to the site and wielded the hammer (quite adeptly, according to fellow volunteers) on less-publicized workdays. "I like getting things accomplished," she says, "That's also why I like to teach. It's tangible."

Playing tennis is an occasional recreational outlet. When Gilmore was 14, she was ranked fourth in the state. She spent time in Richmond while playing during those early teen years and still enjoys the network of folks that she met through the tennis circuit. Now, she says, "We're more likely to discuss child-rearing than tennis."

While Roxane Gilmore says she and her husband have moved into their roles comfortably, the aura of the office particularly struck her husband during inauguration week. They were attending a special event at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg. "It was there that it really dawned on him that Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson had been in this position. And that of the eight Virginia-born presidents, how many of them had been governors [Jefferson, Monroe, Tyler and Wilson, who served as governor of New Jersey]."

Is she hinting that her husband yearns for higher office? His name has been mentioned for a cabinet position in a possible Bush presidency.

"I didn't say that," she says with an incredulous look as if it's a trick question. "He's trying to be governor. If you don't do what you're elected to do, you won't be elected to do anything else. Jim has taken whatever he's done very seriously.

"He makes his own decisions, but we sometimes discuss things," she says.

This past May, Roxane Gilmore was attending a board meeting of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, of which she is a trustee, when the board received a letter from the governor blasting the state-owned institution's presentation of a lecture by Sally Mann. The Lexington-based and internationally known photographer had shown one image of her and her two daughters spoofing the famous "The Three Graces" in which they were urinating.

Had the governor given his wife a heads up of his protest?

"No, he didn't," she says. "It was absolutely his decision to make and I think he made the right one. There's a certain line across which our public institutions can't step."

Says longtime associate Warthen, "She is fiercely loyal and devoted to Jim's career. And while I've always known the two of them together, you don't think of her as an appendage or an adjunct."

Roxane Gilmore has opinions. She makes it clear that she favors a second term for governors. She cites particularly the problem with economic development, how one governor and his staff might be laying time-consuming groundwork and just getting to know corporate and institutional players when they have to leave office. "Virginia's not a provincial place anymore," she says. "It has a role to play internationally."

If that's the case, then the Executive Mansion is equipped to be a showplace of the state's hospitality and history for decades to come. And its restoration will certainly be Roxane Gilmore's crowning achievement — a project that called on a combination of her well-developed skills, while allowing her to hone new ones.

"I admire her ability to stay with that project," says Baliles, whose husband's administration oversaw the restoration of the exterior of the mansion. "Over the years many people had done things to make it more comfortable, but what she did was to take it down to exquisite detail. They didn't have to do it during their term, it required considerable sacrifice."

But Roxane Gilmore isn't complaining. "I'm glad I got to do this," she says softly, but with an unmistakable air of triumph. It's going on 6 p.m. and she leaves the ladies' parlor to prepare for the next engagement of the day, "I'm glad nobody else got to do this."

Jump to Part 1, 2,

Add a comment