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Innerviews: First lady thrives in do-it-all role

LOGAN, W.Va. -- Life was busy enough. As president of the Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College in Logan, Joanne Tomblin spends at least 10 hours a day dealing with the details and demands of academia.

She grew accustomed to the added obligations of public life as the wife of longtime Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin.

Now, as West Virginia's first lady, those official duties grow ever more daunting. No problem. Infused with boundless energy, she juggles myriad responsibilities with the can-do efficiency that has fueled her since those achievement-oriented high school years in Long Island.

Despite the high-profile titles and proficient do-it-all persona, she's gracious, open and easy to know.

Her journey to college president and first lady started on the life-altering day she enrolled at Marshall.

She's 59.

 

"I was born in New York City. I was an only child. When I was 5, we moved to Long Island where my dad went to work for American Electric Power as a consulting engineer. He traveled to different power plants in 13 states.

"My high school had 3,500 students. I was in a Jewish neighborhood. I was one of only five Christians. So I grew up in a very Jewish environment. Those parents were very academic-oriented.

"Syosset High School was in the top 100 schools in the United States. You were very much in academic competition. Of 900 students in my graduating class, 898 went to college and two went to the military. These were all very intelligent people.

"I was on the yearbook and newspaper staff, and I was a cheerleader, very athletic. But I was never one of those people out there being very showy. The title I got was Most Honest student.

"I always thought I would be an engineer or a lawyer. I started college as a science and math major at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. When I took an elective class in communications, I loved it, but the University of Hartford did not have a journalism school for communications.

"West Virginia was one of the places my dad went to when he traveled. He said Marshall University had one of the most outstanding journalism schools in the country. So I came to Marshall as a junior and majored in journalism.

"It was an adjustment, but it didn't take long. You make a place what it is. My roommate was from New York City, believe it or not. I met a lot of people from Logan. I would go to Logan with friends, never knowing I would end up here. This was 1973.

"In 1975, the faculty selected me as Marshall's Most Outstanding Broadcast Journalism Student. The chairman of the journalism department came to me and said the Legislature was going to have an Office of Public Information and would select six journalism students from the state to work there. I was working at WPBY, but the manager said if I were chosen, my job would be waiting for me.

"I got selected for the 1975 session. That is where I met Earl Ray. He wanted to do some news releases and radio spots and called us to help. It ended up being me. When the session was over, we started dating.

"Then I went to work at Channel 3 in Huntington. I started out doing a morning talk show, then moved to the noon news with Bob Brunner and Bud Dailey. And I would usually have a story for the 11 o'clock news. I had job offers in two other states but ended up staying.

"Earl Ray owned a restaurant in Logan. He would work in his restaurant and come to the session, so it was this wild romance for three or four years. We got married in 1979.

"I said I would marry him and come to Logan but I had to have a job. I ended up being director of the Chamber of Commerce. I worked part time for the chamber and part time here at the college as director of continuing education.

"The director of the Department of Aging wanted me to work for senior programs. I did that until 1983.

"The president of the college called and asked if I'd be interested in coming back. I went back in '83 as director of television services, right back in my field. Then I taught communication classes.

"I am a very motivated, high-energy person, always looking to do more and better. The assistant to the president position opened. Working with the president, I got my taste of operating and running an entire institution.

"As new presidents came on, I picked up a variety of jobs within my own job. I sat through many uncomfortable times here, but I was learning about the college and watching it grow. Assistant to the president turned into associate vice president and then vice president.

"I was dean of the campus and director of the Boone campus for a while. I was over human resources, economic development, the gamut of things here, absorbing and taking additional classes and learning about technical colleges and their role for West Virginia.

"Community and technical colleges were the stepping stones to a four-year college because they were affordable. You got your general education and moved on to a four-year college.

"But they have become a new entity across the country. It's such a gratifying experience to be in the community college business now, because most of the jobs that are going to be available in this country and this state in the next 10 or 15 years are going to require skills and less than four years of college but more than a high school education.

"We are going to be the training ground for West Virginia's economy. It's exciting to see the change. When I became president almost 13 years ago, 75 percent of our students transferred to a four-year college. I said I was going to flip it, that we were going to have 25 percent transferring and 75 percent learning skills and going right into the workforce. We're about 50-50 right now.

"When the governorship possibility came up, it was going to mean a dramatic change, just logistically, so we had to talk about it. I told him I wanted to keep working. He has always been supportive of me working.

"I get up at 4:30. That's my hour to drink my coffee, read the paper and watch the news. Between 6 and 6:30, I leave for work. A state trooper drives me. I'm here by 7 or 7:30. I get back to the mansion between 6 and 7, and we always have dinner together. That's our time to sit down and go over the world.

"We don't work here on Friday. Five or six years ago when gas prices started to soar, I put everybody on a four-day week, including students.

"There is no job description for first lady, so whatever you make of that role is what it will be. Sometimes you feel guilty because you have to say no to a lot of events. Everybody every day wants you to be everywhere, but you can't do it. I pick and choose those things that I think are important.

"I have several projects. One is college completion. I'm passionate about finishing college and getting skilled. I also started an initiative for West Virginia's military. I'm adamant about our military. We have more military per capita than any other state. We don't show them enough respect or appreciation.

"On my website, there is a suggestion every month about how to show your appreciation for someone in the military. It could be as easy as schoolchildren sending cards or cutting grass for a neighbor whose spouse is deployed. If you do something, I ask that you put it on my website, and I send you a dog tag.

"I support the arts in education and West Virginia tourism. I always want to have people coming to our state to see it.

"The governor is very down to earth. He never raises his voice or gets angry, never says anything ill about anybody. He is such a calm personality, very methodical. He thinks through everything and comes to some conclusion.

"He's not flamboyant. I've always called him a worker bee. He wants to get the job done. He doesn't care about the fanfare. And he is the most honest, ethical person I've ever known.

"He loves the outdoors, loves to garden, loves to be home mowing the lawn. We still have our house here in Logan. He does what he can. He's very much a homebody.

"We have the one son, Brent, 21. He's graduating from Marshall a semester early in health-care administration. He was a student here for two years.

"I like to cook. I'm a Food Network junkie. The governor watches Jeopardy! I watch the Food Network. When I'm home, I am cooking. I love to have people over to eat. My parents entertained a lot, so I was used to that.

"I sing soprano in the church choir. I joined the Presbyterian Church here where we got married. As first lady, it's difficult to go to Wednesday night choir practices, but I do it as much as I can.

"It is such an honor to be first lady. It is an honor to be a college president. How many people get to be a college president? It was just the luck of the draw. The slightest thing could have changed my course at any time.

"I don't really think of myself as a college president or as a first lady. I just think of myself as Joanne doing my job. I'm not going to say there aren't days that are challenging, trying to juggle all of it. But you do it.

"I am thrilled with my life. I have hit the epitome of what somebody would aspire to do in their life."

Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.

 


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