First Lady Lisa Collis is a study in contrasts.

The Public Life

Lisa Collis recalls being drawn to the scene like a moth to flame.

In the state Capitol rotunda she saw the governor’s wife, Susan Allen, surrounded by applauding legislators and lobbyists. It was George Washington’s birthday in 1995. Allen had just unveiled a portrait of the first president, donated by candy manufacturers, made with thousands of brightly colored jelly beans.

As Allen was stepping up to speak, Collis could barely stand the suspense. “What is she going to say?” Collis remembers thinking. “What could anybody say in a situation like this?”

Collis, a small, unpretentious woman with a deep dread of public speaking, soon will face similar moments herself. She’s the wife of Mark R. Warner who, on Jan. 12, was inaugurated as Virginia’s 69th governor.

Being first lady is a role Collis never envisioned in the 1980s when she worked to improve public health for migrant workers, spent time in Guatemala studying nutrition and worked for the World Bank crafting AIDS policy for Third World nations.

But friends say Collis — the daughter of a Navy flier who grew up everywhere, including Norfolk — is remarkably adaptable.

“She’s always been very confident and sure of who she is,” says Heather Stroup, a former roommate at the University of Virginia. “She’ll find a way to do things in her own way and make a great first lady.”

Collis, 46, will be the first governor’s wife in Virginia to go by her maiden name. “I always envisioned that I would keep my birth name, and Mark is fine with that,” she said. “I have a lot of pride in my family heritage.”

Since Warner’s victory, her life has become a swirl of choosing mattresses and paint colors for the Executive Mansion, hiring a personal staff, deciding when to move the children down from Alexandria, preparing for a jillion social events and keeping a practiced eye on the swarm seeking favor from her husband.

One question keeps popping in her mind. It goes back to Susan Allen and the jelly-bean portrait.

“Do they give you warnings beforehand for things like that?” she asks with a laugh. “I hope they don’t just sweep you down there and say, ‘Here, you’ve got to do this.'”

At first blush, Warner and Collis seem a study in contrasts. He’s tall, loud, restless, competitive and easily agitated. She’s slight, barely above 5 feet, patient and a bit of a bookworm. The key word is understated. She’s comfortable in plain slacks, flat heels and a wisp of makeup.

Collis, the third of four children, was born in Pensacola, Fla., and grew up in Norfolk, California, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico. The family settled in Falls Church, Va., in 1967 when her father, a helicopter pilot, retired from the Navy after 23 years.

Her social conscience sprung in high school from a much-admired older brother who joined the Peace Corps and urged her to read about world population explosion.

“Those books started my interest in some of the lesser-developed countries, and the poverty and inequities began to bother me,” she says.

Collis earned a degree in biology from the University of Virginia. She joined the Peace Corps and was set to ship out to Upper Volta when the mission was canceled. So she went on to the University of Texas for a master’s degree in public health.

She says she moved to New Jersey after that, but leaves friends to add that it was for a project to set up medical care for migrants. Then it was on to Central America and the World Bank in a quest to help the needy.

Warner was on a much different mission at the time. He was trying make the rich richer by brokering deals for cellular telephone franchises — an effort that would eventually reap a $200 million personal fortune for Warner.

But things hadn’t quite taken off for the young entrepreneur that night in 1984 when he and his roommates decided to throw a keg party in a dingy townhouse they rented in Alexandria.

And it was certainly not Stroup’s intention to make a match when she asked Collis to go along with her.

“I never, for a second, pictured those two together,” she says.

But the two hit it off, admiring each other’s determination and discovering deep common interests in reading history, travel and movies.

“He was so different,” Collis recalls.”I remember he was into Peter, Paul and Mary, and that wasn’t a cool thing to do. He was very high-energy and sincere. He didn’t try to impress me, and I liked that.”

Still, Stroup was a little surprised a few days later when Collis accepted a date with Warner.

“Lisa usually turned men down; she was very particular,” Stroup says. “She was not one who wanted to go out with someone just to go out. She had to find them interesting company.”

The couple married in 1989.

“It wasn’t one of those real romantic proposals,” Collis says “It was more along the line of, ‘You know, we’ve been talking about this, and yeah, I love you, we get along, what the heck?'”

A dozen years of marriage haven’t blunted Collis and Warner’s differences. He’s never stopped stirring and has been on the road most weeknights closing business deals or pursuing political dreams. She chucked her career to raise the couple’s three daughters: Madison, 11; Gillian, 10; and Eliza, 7.

Collis finds joy in the ordinary: car pooling to soccer games; attending PTA meetings and overseeing homework.

“I want to take cello lessons but, you know, I don’t,” she says. “I want to take self-defense classes. I’d love to play tennis. There’s a lot of things I would like to do, but I don’t have that follow-through, as Mark says.”

“Lisa is a very strong and intelligent person in her own right,” says Sandy Markwood, another former U.Va. roommate, who is deputy director of the National Association of Counties in Washington. “She’s chosen to become a wonderful life partner to Mark and an incredible mother.”

She’s private and uses humor to deflect personal questions. Her steeliness comes out when the focus turns to her children. She’s adamant about protecting them from the limelight.

During the campaign, Collis snuffed requests from news organizations to spend time with the family.

“Just how natural do you think we could be?” she asks.

She was upset by criticism that the Warners send their children to private school.

“It wouldn’t have bothered us except for the fact that, you know, it was a hard decision for us to make at the time,” she says. Collis says she convinced her husband to send the girls to Burgundy Farms School in Fairfax County, which in 1950 was the first school in Virginia to integrate. It’s a small academy that doesn’t give grades and stresses hands-on learning.

“It’s not into competition at all, and I like that,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to create this artificial construct of competition between children to make them want to learn. … It should be about ‘What am I learning, what am I interested in and how do I motivate myself.’

“It’s kind of foreign to Mark because he loves competition. He pushes them in a more overt way than I do in school. He probably worries about them more than I do.”

Collis and Warner have a bunch of other disagreements.

“Oh gosh, I’m much more liberal than he is, particularly on the social issues,” she says. “I remember with the flag-burning amendment years ago, I was not in favor of that and he was. We had lots of discussion about that. … He supports the death penalty, and I’m morally opposed to it.”

Not that she expects to change her husband’s views.

“We’ve been married long enough to know that I’m never going to change his mind on certain things, and he’s not going to change mine.

“He does seek out my advice on people,” she adds. “It’s more along the lines of how I feel about people and not their points of view.”

Warner and Collis are surrounded by people these days. He’s filling hundreds of top jobs in his administration and is accompanied by state police wherever he goes. She’s constantly fielding calls from an ocean of bureaucrats with logistical questions about her move into the Executive Mansion.

Collis and Warner hadn’t seen the second-floor living quarters until recently. It’s apparent they’ll have get by with a lot less room then they’re used to in their private home, a historic Alexandria estate with a view of the Potomac River.

Her initial reaction to her future home on the state Capitol grounds?

“It will be nice,” she says. “It would be nicer if the house was in a real neighborhood where it had a real yard.”

The children won’t be moving to Richmond until June, when school ends. Collis’ parents are coming from Oregon to stay with the girls in the interim. Collis herself plans to do a lot of commuting.

“The girls are excited about moving to a certain extent, but it will be different,” she says. “The thought of leaving their friends makes them sad. I mean, they’ve been to only one school. I keep telling them that one day they’ll look back on this fondly.”

It’s not been decided whether the girls will attend public or private school in Richmond.

Also up in the air is what Collis’ special project will be as first lady. Susan Allen promoted tourism; Roxane Gilmore has been dedicated to historic preservation.

Collis sees potential to further a variety of causes she and her husband promoted through private foundations they’ve set up and endowed: combating child abuse, improving access to health care, and teaching computer skills to the elderly and poor.

“I don’t know how much of a bully pulpit I’ll have as first lady, but maybe people out there will at least invite me to lunch to talk,” she says.

And she’ll go, too, and try to overcome her dread of public speaking. Just like she did a few times during the campaign.

“It got better once I got my little stump speech down, and my key little phrases down with reporters,” she says. “But if I have to speak at a luncheon, I still can’t eat beforehand.”

Which brings her back to the jelly-bean portrait.

Collis admires Allen’s aplomb in taking the podium that day and issuing a “very innocuous pro-candy statement.”

“If it had been me,” she adds, “I might have blurted, ‘Why did you make a portrait in jelly


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