HOT SEAT- Catlin's meow: Talking the county's talk

Lee Catlin

As Albemarle County's spokesperson, Lee Catlin is the connection between the people and their government. She handles press conferences, attends public meetings, gives TV interviews, talks to the public. Sometimes things are slow, but other times they're hopping. Literally.

In late summer 1996, a large poisonous South American toad named Bufo escaped from a biology teacher's house in Western Albemarle. If the story seemed like a joke at first, the laughter stopped when a German Shepherd picked up the foot-long amphibian and died soon after from contact with the toad's poison. Suddenly, Catlin recalls, the hunt for Bufo heated up, and she was fielding calls from media organizations around the country until its capture several days later.

"I remember thinking, 'Is my career going to be defined by Bufo the toad?'" she says.

In fact, Bufo is a distant memory now for most people, but Catlin's involvement in other high profile events has kept her in the spotlight.

"I can be sitting at my desk having a calm, controlled day," she says, "and something changes completely."

In separate events in 2006 and 2007, Albemarle County schools were closed for what authorities believed to be legitimate bomb threats. Catlin was among the first on the scene and served as the conduit for information between the school system, police, and worried parents. 

She's handled murders, plane crashes, and missing people, but her job's not always about tragedy: she calls the Crozet filming last year of big-budget comedy Evan Almighty "gratifying."

Catlin, a 1979 UVA grad, didn't set out to be a government spokesperson. An English and communications major, she spent five years after college working in corporate communications in Pennsylvania before moving back to this area to raise her two children, who are now grown. 

Though she stayed home with the children when they were young, in the late 1980s, she says, "I felt ready to put my energy into something that felt personally satisfying."

She started as a community liaison for the Albemarle police department, where she was instrumental in forming neighborhood watch programs, and became community spokesperson when the position was created in 1996.

The job has changed radically since then thanks to new technology and Albemarle's biggest issue: growth.

"One of the challenges is the fact that we have 2,000 new residents each year," she says. With the County's population at approximately 92,000 and counting, there are plenty of conflicting opinions.

"How do we take all the energy and disparate viewpoints," she asks, "and try to create a common viewpoint and move forward?"

Age: 50 

Why here? We moved to be closer to family once grandkids were on the way; also, being a good Wahoo, there was just that undeniable attraction. 

What's worst about living here? All the great things about our community sometimes make it hard to see the people who really need attention and help.

Favorite hangout? Funky local coffeehouses; I'm particularly fond of La Taza. 

Most overrated virtue? Perfection 

People would be surprised to know: I'm really good at hula hooping and beat out several third graders at our recent Citizens Open House.

What would you change about yourself? I would get out of my car more often and walk and bike, which I love to do, but don't always make the time. 

Proudest accomplishment? I have been a Book Buddy at Burnley-Moran Elementary School for the past four years; I love nurturing strong readers, one student at a time. 

People find most annoying about you: I have been known to talk way too much– an occupational hazard in my profession. 

Whom do you admire? Virginia Tech students, faculty and administration, for obvious reasons 

Favorite book? I recently finished [Gregory Maguire's] Wicked and loved it. And I'm happy reading anything by Anna Quinlan. 

Subject that causes you to rant? People who have lived in our community for less than five years, and then complain about all the new people moving in.

Biggest 21st-century thrill? New cars with heated seats and chilled drink holders 

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Way too much personal, private info available to the world

What do you drive?  Honda CRV with heated seats (indulging one of my biggest thrills, but unfortunately not the cupholder) 

In your car CD player: James Taylor's greatest hits– still loving his JPJ concert

Next journey? Denver, Colorado to visit my stepson 

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? As an experienced PR person, I never say "no comment." I will just say it was in my first year of college and thankfully well before the days of YouTube.

Regret: I never studied or lived abroad. 

Favorite comfort food: Popcorn and grilled cheese sandwiches 

Always in your refrigerator: Diet Coke and white wine– one or the other is an appropriate choice for most occasions. 

Must-see TV: Lost, college football 

Favorite cartoon: Calvin and Hobbes 

Describe a perfect day. Waking up in a house on the beach, spending a sunny morning on the deck with my husband and a good book, quick swim and long walk in the afternoon, and grilling some great seafood with all of our kids stopping by to eat dinner and hang out for while 

Walter Mitty fantasy: I'm the featured author  for the Virginia Festival of the Book, invited to do the big lunchtime speech and reflect on my incredibly successful new book. 

Who'd play you in the movie? Allison Janney 

Most embarrassing moment? I'm always just on the cusp of a new one here, so I don't think I can commit to any one particular moment right now.

Best advice you ever got? Say "thank you" often– and mean it! 

Favorite bumper sticker? It's a tie between "Be the change you want to see in the world" (for my highbrow one) and "Western Albemarle Lacrosse" (one from the heart)