Marie McDemmond started making people mad even before she got to Norfolk State University. She came in bursting with energy and ideas, found out the school was millions of dollars in the hole, laid off more than 100 people -- and didn't hesitate to blame the longtime former president for financial mismanagement.
"I'm fast," she said. "I'm not a person to sit still."
And more quickly than anyone expected, she whipped the school's finances into shape. She cut costs, got a $4.1 million bailout loan from the state and paid it back two years early. She launched the school's first major private fundraising campaign and pushed for multimillion-dollar annual increases in state funding.
She was the first African American woman to lead a four-year college in Virginia, the first to set standards for admission at the state's largest historically black college, the first to envision a high-tech entrepreneurial future for the school. She's been thinking a lot about her legacy lately; on her 59th birthday this year, a doctor told her she has chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Researchers are trying to find a way to stop that type of cancer from advancing, but her best hope, she was told, would be clinical trials.
So she's walking away, slowly, from Norfolk State, her toughest job, and the one she always wanted.
It wasn't easy to get here.
Her mother died six days after she was born; the family tells the story that doctors could save either mother or child, and her mother said, "Save my baby." Her father, a successful businessman fallen into harder times, was shot in the chest late one night at the nightclub he owned. McDemmond was 7 years old when he died.
She was raised by relatives in her New Orleans family but never adopted. "I was just a take-in," McDemmond said. She remembers her great-aunt, who cleaned houses, bringing home flour sacks and stitching them into dresses for her.
Her friends from the time -- many of them still close -- don't remember hardships so much as they remember McDemmond's confidence. "She was in charge," said her childhood friend Harold Doley, the first African American member of the New York Stock Exchange. She was smart, Doley said, and she was a beauty.
"The guys were lined up bumper-to-bumper," said Maurice Martinez Jr., her cousin.
She was quick, and driven. "I always wanted to be the boss of the school," McDemmond said. Back then, for a black girl in the segregated South, that meant an elementary school principal. She was able to pay for her education at Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically black college, with money her father left her.
She moved from job to job, school to school, from New York to Massachusetts to Florida. She invested, and invested well. She earned a doctorate in public finance from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst while she worked there. She raised two sons. She went through four marriages and four divorces.
Her older son, Alan Saulny, said, "She was fierce . . . all those obstacles, she went right headfirst through them."
A Lukewarm Welcome
She always wanted to return to a historically black school.
But coming to Norfolk State in the summer of 1997 was tough. When the longtime president stepped down, many faculty members and administrators didn't want any changes. Some said a woman couldn't run the place. It was bad enough, said George Crawley, a former Norfolk city administrator, that he formed a community group to welcome McDemmond to the campus.
She was sitting at her desk one day in July 1997 when the phone rang and the comptroller told her they didn't have enough money to cover payroll the rest of the month. McDemmond looked at the numbers for the coming months and found it was much worse than that. She took heat for an expensive furnishing and renovation bill for the president's house she knew about in the months before she came. And she was going through a difficult divorce.
If she'd known what it would be like, she said, she never would have come.
But she pushed through it all. She held people accountable, eliminated the deficit, raised the caliber of the students -- the grade-point averages of entering freshmen rose 13 percent in the past decade, and their average SAT scores went up 14 percent, according to Norfolk State statistics. Academics became more rigorous. State funding increased dramatically, and so did the endowment. She added high-tech degree programs and launched the beginnings of an applied research complex known as the RISE Center, for Research and Innovation to Support Empowerment, to spark economic development.
The school still has problems: Enrollment has dropped to about 6,000 students, in part because of new admission standards and higher tuition; graduation rates, while improved, still need a boost; and athletics are limping. "I'd give her a C-plus," said Shirley Lassiter, a former Board of Visitors member and early critic.
But McDemmond now has her own following -- people who call her brilliant, dynamic, tireless. "She transformed Norfolk State into a center of science and technology, giving it a new thrust. That was her vision. . . . She's a superb executive," said Jack L. Ezzell Jr., rector of the Board of Visitors.
"She's elevated both the standards and the economics of that place," said Patricia Cormier, president of Longwood University, another state school in Virginia. "It's a wonderful example for [historically black colleges and universities] across the country that indeed these institutions can be successful, and we need more of that."
A Force Reined In
Sometime last summer, McDemmond started to slow down. After her younger son graduated from the University of Virginia, she took him to Captiva Island, Fla., and just wanted to lie in her lounge chair. She took a sabbatical to start writing a book on higher education finance.
One evening last winter, Saulny noticed as they were walking to dinner that for the first time in his life, he wasn't hurrying to keep up with his mother -- she had fallen behind.
In March, she told the Board of Visitors that she had an illness and would leave June 30, two years before the end of her 10-year contract.
Some of them cried; she didn't. "I'm a great blocker-outer," she said.
She can't stand all the sympathy. She's mad that she can't do everything she used to do and that she still wants to do. She's going to finish her book and teach at Norfolk State after some rest, she hopes, and give financial advice to other historically black schools.
She looked at all the boxes and pictures in bubble wrap stacked up at the almost-empty president's house, and said, "I'm just plumb dog-tired."
As she leaves, she's making one more positive change to the balance sheets: a gift of $1 million.
"I think people will remember me as a hardworking old girl," she said.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.