Lisa Collis: Not in anyone's shadow

It's impossible not to be charmed by a famous University of Virginia graduate who, returning to the Lawn for the first time since her graduation, candidly admits, "The only time I put on a skirt in my four years here was to go drop organic chemistry."

Lisa Collis, First Lady of Virginia, confided that and other details about her undergraduate days in Charlottesville at a February speech in the Rotunda Dome Room. Amid other expressions of amazement at her celebrity ("I was not, quite honestly, someone who would be asked to come back and speak") Collis described her post-UVA career. She expressed regret that she was not able to discuss service in the Peace Corps– her first choice of post-UVA work– because the mission for which she trained was canceled.

After graduate school at the University of Texas, where she earned a master's degree in public health, Collis worked as a public health consultant for the World Bank and as an outreach worker with a migrant health project.

But it's as the wife of Governor Mark Warner that Collis has garnered state-wide attention, and there too she harbors no illusions. "I'm here, in the age-old tradition, because of my husband," she told the UVA audience. That humility perhaps is a bit unwarranted considering her many personal contributions to improving the lives of citizens of the Commonwealth.

While the list of her board chairmanships is predictably lengthy, and the foundation she and her husband have established is justly well-known, a more telling indication of her personal commitment to civic improvement is the fact that this interview had to be scheduled around her first-grade tutoring obligations at Woodville Elementary, one of the Governor's PASS schools in Richmond.

To the inevitable question of what it's like for an unassuming, private woman to be cast into such a public role, Collis replies, "I've adapted to it better than I ever thought I would." She adds, "I hate public speaking, but I've gotten okay at it– at least I don't have any tics."

How does life in the public eye affect her three children? Predictably. "The 14-year-old hates it," she says, "while the nine-year-old loves it, eats it up." A political career may be in the future of the13-year-old: She's a centrist who, her mother says, "neither loves it nor hates it."

Okay, so Collis has had an independent career where she made important decisions that affected people's lives. If she were the governor, is there anything she'd do differently?

"I express my take on things that aren't controversial," she says simply. "After all, it's not my platform."

Well, not yet anyway.

Age: 48

What do you like best about Charlottesville? The Lawn at UVA

What do you like least about Charlottesville? Route 29

Favorite hangout? Misha's coffeehouse in Alexandria

Most overrated virtue? People think I'm easygoing.

What would people be surprised to know about you? That I can be very bossy

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I'd have thicker hair.

What accomplishment are you proudest of? The fact that I refuse to worry about accomplishments

What do people find most annoying about you? My bossiness

Whom do you admire? Abigail Adams

Favorite book? Pride and Prejudice

What subject causes you to rant? The disparagement of feminism

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? The prospect of major medical breakthroughs

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? Irresponsible Internet gossip masquerading as journalism

What do you drive? Dodge Durango

What's in your car CD player right now? How the Irish Saved Western Civilization

What's your next journey? I don't know. I'm still trying to figure out where I am on this one.

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? In the second grade, I was taken to the principal for disobeying the school crossing guard, who happened to be my brother. He turned me in.

What do you regret? The cancellation of my Peace Corps assignment

Favorite comfort food? Kraft Macaroni and Cheese

What's always in your refrigerator? Milk, butter, eggs

Must-see TV? Nothing

Favorite cartoon? George of the Jungle

Describe a perfect day: Get up at 8:30, have a good cup of coffee, read the newspaper with no interruptions and have nothing scheduled

Walter Mitty fantasy? Living as an expatriate in southern France writing Nobel Prize-winning literature

Who'd play you in the movie? Holly Hunter (without the accent)

Most embarrassing moment? When I was giving a speech and discovered I was missing an entire page, I couldn't remember the name of the person I was supposed to introduce.

Best advice you ever got? Get the epidural.

Favorite bumper sticker? "Ambivalent? Well, yes and no."


Lisa Collis
PHOTO BY LINCOLN ROSS BARBOUR

[Due to a production error, this story appeared in our print edition bearing another reporter's byline.– editor]