Being John Casteenovich: The lighter side of the UVA president

John Casteen is not at all keen to do the Hot Seat. Maybe he figures he's in the hot seat enough as UVA president.

After all, he's the one charged with maintaining the standards at Virginia's flagship university amid staggering state deficits and ever-dwindling funding. He's the one who must be the voice of moral authority at Mr. Jefferson's university when students stage tasteless antics, such as dressing in blackface or– egads– as West Virginians. And much like a parent of mischievous children, it falls in his lap to respond when the governor of West Virginia demands an apology.

Casteen's public persona is nothing if not serious. And indeed, raising a billion bucks and staving off plunging ratings are serious business.

Because he's a private man, despite his protestation to the contrary, you get the feeling he thinks interviews like this are some of the more distasteful aspects of his job. Besides, "It's hard for me to answer these questions without sounding idiotic," he complains.

But what about his lighter side?

"This is it," he replies in a low voice without cracking a smile in his humongous Madison Hall office, a former gymnasium, where a sailboat model in the center of the room hints of outside interests.

Maybe he was scarred as an undergrad here in the early '60s. "This was not a warm and fuzzy place," Casteen recalls.

The biggest change since those days, of course, is the presence of women and minority students, which he believes has lured UVA's top-tier faculty.

Casteen's first taste of multiculturalism occurred during a stint teaching at UC Berkeley in the 1970s. He's most animated talking about those days a time "full of phenomenal creative activity"– when a Nobel prizewinner had the office down the hall, Allen Ginsberg lived down the street, and Patty Hearst was getting kidnapped.

These days his neighbors are fraternities. "It helps if you're deaf in one ear," he says. There are the occasional frat pranks to be endured, like the time his Carr's Hill doorbell rang in the middle of the night and he found a guy on the front porch with no clothes on. "I gave him a blanket and called the police to take him home," the Prez dryly reports.

Casteen does offer one startling revelation, especially from a scholar who's been on college campuses most of his life: "I've never seen a streaker," he admits. Not to give those frat boys any ideas...

Posing for a picture, during which he's no doubt wondering how much longer this interview will continue, he responds in character to a photographer trying to cajole him into a lighthearted display of spontaneity.

"Go away," says Casteen, only half-jokingly.

Age: 59

What brought you here? Originally, enrollment in the College; other things at other times; now, job, and family, and personal preference.

What's worst about living here? US 29 north

Favorite hangout? A boat called Surprise

 Most overrated virtue? Stoicism

What would people be surprised to know about you? Not much. Privacy is scarce in my trade.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I'd learn to play the piano.

What accomplishment are you proudest of? One shouldn't brag.

What do people find most annoying about you? Probably not my full head of hair.

Whom do you admire? Mary Wollstonecraft, Sojourner Truth, and a man named Doc Hurley.

Favorite book? The Divine Comedy

 What subject causes you to rant? Stoics don't rant.

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? That it looks better than Stanley Kubrick thought it would.

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? That every day it looks more like Aldous Huxley said it would.

What do you drive? Depends. When parking is plentiful and I have time for repairs along the way, a silver Airstream on a Gillig bus chassis; otherwise, a pickup truck.

What's in your car CD player right now? Gillian Welch, "I Want to Sing that Rock and Roll"

What's your next journey? Richmond, probably. It's that time of year.

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? If I told you, I wouldn't be in it any more.

What do you regret? How many pages do you have for this?

Favorite comfort food? Pizza

What's always in your refrigerator? Diet Coke, grapefruit juice

Must-see TV? I don't think TV is required.

Favorite cartoon? "Doonesbury"

Describe a perfect day. Cumulus clouds, May or September, winds SSW, 8 knots, reaching north.

Walter Mitty fantasy? Being president of UVA

Who'd play you in the movie? I guess Elton John is out. Gene Hackman? Russell Crowe?

Most embarrassing moment? Too many– the list would fill your paper.

Best advice you ever got? Forget embarrassing moments.

Favorite bumper sticker? Don't have one, but I like those little blue disks with the V on them.


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