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A Life of History

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 16, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Roxane Gilmore Roxane Gilmore: "Teaching is a way to continue my education." (By Nancy Andrews/The Post)
As the clutch of Virginia college students jotted notes and swigged breakfast Cokes, the professor held forth. She painted pictures in the air of ancient Athens and its government as the very seedbed of democracy – a radical notion that encouraged outsiders to bloodlessly wrest power from insiders.

She parsed the funeral oration of Pericles, who celebrated the versatility of Athenians. Athens, she said, "was set up to allow everyone, regardless of social status, to perform functions in the society."

And she quoted from a critic of democracy known as the Old Oligarch. "The Old Oligarch," she intoned, in her husky voice, "saw Athenians as self-serving. Pericles saw them as self-sacrificing." On and on she orated about the Old Oligarch, about how he sneered at the upstart Athenians and their distrust of wealth and their empowerment of the poor.

The professor of classics at Randolph-Macon College should know all about oligarchy – political rule by a privileged few – and the difficulties of serving society.

After all, she is the wife of Jim Gilmore, the 68th governor of Virginia.


The world according to Roxane Gilmore is a revolving series of events, history repeating itself. Steeped in the stories of the deep past, she sees the present and the future in a different way from most people.

"It's like we know a secret," explained Elizabeth Fisher, her friend and classics department colleague. Having a classical education "doesn't help to solve a thing. But it helps us to connect, to feel like we're not pioneers. And to understand the connections between economics and politics or art and politics."

Maybe it's seeing those timeworn, never-changing relationships in everyday life that sets Roxane Gilmore, 44, apart from the usual political wife. Maybe it's the bouts with potentially fatal Hodgkin's disease when she was younger. Whatever the reason, she has some distance.

For one thing, she's a different kind of governor's wife from what Virginia is used to. "We've never had a first lady like Roxane Gilmore," said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "This is a very traditional state. She's the first of a kind."

She's probably the first first lady in the state's history to work outside the home. "In other places, even Arkansas, this happened a long time ago," Sabato said. "We've had some very good, very active first ladies like Jeannie Baliles. But their lives have always been defined by their husband's job. Roxane is the first with a completely independent identity."

Some Virginians wonder if she can be a forceful first lady and continue to teach. "Being first lady is such a tremendous, wonderful, fabulous job," said former first lady Susan Allen, who used the office as a soapbox to speak out on such issues as breast cancer and to promote tourism. "Aside from raising your children and taking care of your husband, every ounce of energy should be given to it."

When Roxane Gilmore does take on a traditional first-lady task, such as speaking to a tourism group, she injects a shot of history. The overdue renovation of the governor's mansion has become for her less a matter of chintz and chenille and more of a historical quest. Since her husband took office in January, she has gathered ideas from more than a dozen homes of the Old South, including Kenmore, the Wickham House and Monticello in Virginia.

After the first lady toured the 1790 John Marshall home in downtown Richmond – with its heart-of-pine floors, antique baby walker and whale-oil kegs – the curator thanked her for coming and presented her with a Marshall biography for her husband. "I'll take it," she said, "if I can read it, too."

She's not determinedly telegenic in the fashion of other Virginia official wives such as Allen, Lynda Johnson Robb and Elizabeth Taylor. She's not proud: Her dog, Sparky, fetches the paper each morning at the mansion and conducts other business in the flower beds. She's not without tribulation: She's the mother of sons – Jay, 15, and Ashton, 10 – described by family friends as "two handfuls" and "bundles of energy." She is competitive. She is reserved and controlled and wants everything just so. She is, nearly everyone says, authentic, guileless, straightforward.

And yet, there is about her that distance.

A Love of Learning

Learning is her true love. Her father, George Gatling – a descendant of the inventor of the Gatling gun – worked as a highway department road inspector. A college dropout, Gatling tutored youngsters in algebra and read thirstily in his spare time.

"He read more than any man I've ever known," recalled Jane Gatling, Roxane's mother and a retired schoolteacher in Suffolk, Va., near Virginia Beach and hard by the Great Dismal Swamp.

On many evenings George Gatling took leisurely strolls in the yard after supper. Roxane often joined him. He'd point out the sparkling constellations and father and daughter would gaze at the moon through the telescope of Gatling's survey transit. Roxane's appreciation for the ancient world is rooted in those starry nights, her mother said.

From the get-go, Roxane was competitive. "Since she was the baby of the family," Jane Gatling recalled, "she regarded it is as a challenge when the older children did things."

For instance, her mother remembered a 5-year-old Roxane taking Red Cross swimming lessons with her older siblings. "She was always wanting to swim the way they were swimming," her mother said. She played the junior tennis circuit and was ranked in the state as a teenager, her mother said.

"But her favorite thing," Jane Gatling recalled, "was a book. She always loved books." When she was 10 or so, her father gave her a Latin primer and began to teach her the language and history of pre-Christ civilization.

The spring of her junior year in high school, Roxane discovered a cyst in her neck. Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer of the lymph glands, was diagnosed. Her father drove her back and forth to Norfolk for radiation treatment. She had to quit playing clarinet in the marching band. Eventually the disease went into remission and she graduated from Suffolk High School in 1972. She was voted "Most Likely to Succeed."

At the University of Virginia she joined the prestigious Jefferson Literary and Debating Society. The society was renowned for its Friday night keg parties and good-humored heckling of speakers. "It could get pretty rambunctious in there," she recollected.

At a club meeting in the fall of 1974, she met Jim Gilmore, the only child of a meat-cutter and a secretary. He was a law student and five years her elder. And according to her, it was attraction at first sight. They delight in saying that on their first date they campaigned door to door for Republican congressional candidate J. Kenneth Robinson.

Campus politics, Jane Gatling said, "was recreation for Roxane. It would have been punishment for me."

The horrors of Hodgkin's disease returned when Roxane was a college senior. Jim, in his second year of law school, stayed by her side through hospital stays and chemotherapy treatments. The two have been together ever since.

Roxane graduated in 1976. The next year they married.

A Professional Life

Last spring Roxane returned to the University of Virginia's Jefferson Hall, the history-laden room where the society meets and where she first laid eyes on Jim. The room, she said, had not changed much in two dozen years. On the walls were portraits of Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee. The wooden floor was stained with beer and Lord knows what else. Old red drapes hung by the windows.

On this afternoon, 30 or so students gathered to hear her. They sat in back-breaking Windsor chairs with rusty rod braces. She stood at an old wooden lectern and pointed to an aisle seat in the second row, where she was sitting the night she met her husband. "We shared many great nights here," she said.

She made a case for grass-roots campaigns, like the ones she and Jim worked on when they were in college. Some voters are still swayed, she maintained, by information in pamphlets and brochures.

Not a flamboyant speaker, Roxane Gilmore. Her voice was strong and steady and almost monotonous. She was effective in a rough-hewn and restrained sort of way.

Young women in the room were particularly curious about how the first lady juggles her academic duties, official responsibilities and motherhood. "I've taught for 20 years," she said. "Teaching is a way to continue my education. I can't imagine not teaching."

After graduating from college and getting a master's degree, she dabbled in politics, but returned to the classroom. She's been teaching part time at Randolph-Macon since 1983, except for a couple of years as a Latin teacher in public high schools.

Campaigning for Gilmore in his 1993 attorney general's race and last year's gubernatorial bid, she crisscrossed the state. To this day, she gives instructions to the state troopers about the quickest route from, say, Ashland to Charlottesville.

Throughout the campaigns, Roxane told her mother not to believe everything she heard. "She'd say, 'You take things too seriously.' " Gatling recalled. She marveled at the resilience of her daughter and Gilmore. "They take criticism and don't let it bother them."

In fact, the Gilmores don't seem fazed by much. Professor Sabato said, "They could care less whether they are invited to the right parties, whether the Richmond social set includes them. Until Jim became attorney general or even governor, they just weren't part of the 'in' crowd."

As for Roxane, Sabato said, "I don't think she cares about the social scene. She is a professional woman who cares about her subject."

Juggling Roles

"Two oots," yelled Roxane Gilmore, finally settling into the bleachers at the west Richmond Little League field. She and the governor were a little late for the June afternoon game. They had missed the first at-bat of their son, Ashton. "Two oots," she yelled again in that melodious Tidewater accent.

She was wearing a white blouse, shorts and New Balance running shoes. She and the governor – in khakis, a green shirt, tassel loafers and a Yankees cap – looked a little stiff cheering for the center fielder in the green-and-gold uniform. Ashton, who also pitches, was No. 15 on the Azzurro Athletics, a team of fourth- and fifth-graders sponsored by an Italian restaurant.

The Athletics were warring against the Advest Padres and, until Ashton stepped to the plate for the second time, most of the runs had been scored on balls dropped by the catcher. The governor and his wife shouted encouragement to Ashton and then they watched in proud amazement as their son smacked a two-run homer into the pink evening sky.

Getting the kids settled in the mansion, Roxane Gilmore has told folks, has been one of her greatest challenges. In the beginning, she said, it was hard for the kids to focus on the commonplace aspects of life – like homework.

They wake up pretty chipper most mornings, the first lady said. Jay was going to golf camp this summer; Ashton to a Boy Scout day camp.

When it comes to disciplining the children, "I've tried to never interfere," said Jane Gatling. "Sometimes I believe I'm going to have to say something, but I've refrained."

Besides, she added, "Roxane is plenty savvy. And the boys seem crazy about her."

The Gilmores shield their children from publicity.

The first family will move again in April when renovation of the mansion swings into high gear. The $4.9 million renovation of the 1813 house will be the first major mark of Roxane Gilmore on her husband's administration.

She said there may even be ghosts in the mansion. According to one story, a young woman stayed late at a party in the horse-and-buggy days. The weather was getting bad and she didn't want to go home, so she spent the night in the mansion. On the way home the following day she was killed in an accident.

"She comes back to the mansion," Roxane Gilmore said with a slight smile, "because that was the last place she had joy."

She said that one morning she got up and Ashton's bed had moved halfway across the room. Another time Jay's bedspread was mysteriously out in the hall.

Despite the fact that she prides herself on learning lessons from history, some friends are concerned that the first lady might be trying to do too much. Before school ended in mid-May, she was attending three official events a day – everything from addressing the Leukemia Society of America to schmoozing with the NASCAR stars at the Richmond International Raceway.

Friend Jean Cathell said, "We've all said to her: 'Gee, Roxane, maybe you need to give something up.' "

Even her mother wonders at her daughter's lickety-split life. "I hope things are slowing down for her," she said. "She didn't know exactly what was expected of her."

From all appearances, though, Roxane Gilmore isn't planning to slow down. In her own measured, reserved, straightaway style, she's speeding up.

When someone once asked her who she truly admired, she spoke of Cornelia, a daughter of a Roman general in the second century B.C.

Writing of Cornelia, the historian Livy referred to her as an ideal woman. A portrait of her hangs, in fact, in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where Roxane has volunteered on occasion.

Cornelia had many hardships. She lost her husband and many of her children died, but two of her strong-willed sons grew up to become legendary citizens of Rome.

Highly educated, Cornelia carried on conversations with kings and other high-powered men. She was much admired for moving through her life – private and public – "without grief and tears."

In other words, with a little distance.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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