Roxane Gilmore’s legacy is the renovation of the Governor’s Mansion. But her revision of the role of first lady may be equally lasting.

Down to Earth

It’s hot and humid in Capitol Square on a recent late weekday afternoon. Just outside the gates of the Executive Mansion, 20 bright-eyed men and women cool their heels under a huge oak tree. They have good haircuts and are dressed understatedly, like the policymakers they aspire to be. Finally, word comes. The first lady is ready to receive them. The group moves purposefully up the brick-paved oval drive, ascends the history-worn marble steps and enters the handsome house that Virginia governors and their families have called home since the James Barbours arrived in 1813.

Today’s guests are enrolled in a selective summer fellows program. It gives young adults from throughout the state first-hand experience in the mechanics of government. This afternoon they’ll tour the exhaustive restoration recently completed by the mansion’s current stewards, Gov. Jim Gilmore and more specifically, his energetic wife.

All eyes adjust from the blazing sunlight to the warm gray walls of the front hall. Shortly, the first lady enters.

“Our dog is a little nuts today,” says Roxane Gilmore, who, despite the hour, looks fresh in a low-waisted, ankle-length linen shift and black espadrilles. “I apologize.”

More than most states, Virginia holds its governors and their spouses in high regard. Perhaps this dates back to a time when the guv was appointed by the English crown and symbolized prestige and often exemplified grand continental style in the North American wilderness. Or perhaps it’s because such towering Americans as Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and Harry F. Byrd once held the office. But there’s also the symbolism of physical continuity — the Executive Mansion is the nation’s oldest gubernatorial residence still in use. And while not exactly palatial, this stalwart landmark has received presidents, royalty, heads of state and even such celebrities as Elizabeth Taylor, Patsy Cornwell and Bruce Hornsby.

“Our governors have always had a lot of power and the opportunity to make lots of appointments,” says L. Ray Ashworth, a former member of the House of Delegates and long-time Capitol Square observer. “Traditionally our governors have worked very hard and in recent terms their wives have been very active.”

Traditionally, Virginia’s first ladies – with some notable exceptions – could have been described as matronly, and also warm, impeccably turned out and a little reserved. Always a support to their spouses, never out front.

But Roxane Gilmore, 46, Virginia’s first first lady of the 21st century, has taken a slightly different tack. Since moving to Capitol Square in January 1998 with the governor, their two sons and Sparky, the first dog, she seems to effortlessly have overlaid the time-and energy- demanding role of first lady atop an already full career and personal life. With two teen-age sons, an established college teaching career, and a deep interest and involvement in archaeology that has taken her to England, Egypt and Greece, her path in life is more parallel to her husband’s than a discreet distance behind.

For the past two and a half years, this University of Virginia-educated native of Suffolk has impressed both casual observers and those who know her well. They cite her keen intellect, natural curiosity and ability to juggle the roles of deeply supportive wife, devoted mother, civic volunteer, tireless hostess and de facto manager of the Executive Mansion, a tourist destination, and historic preservationist (with the completion of the mansion’s restoration). All this, while teaching classics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, a position she has held since 1983. Roxane Gilmore is the first governor’s wife to hold what she calls “my day job.”

“Believe me, she knows what she’s doing,” says former first lady Jeannie Baliles, occasional tennis partner and co-chair with Gilmore of the Virginia Literacy Foundation. The two met when Baliles approached Gilmore about lending her name and abilities to the foundation. “She’s extremely bright and she’s an academic: I say that with admiration. She’s a sophisticated educator, and cares a great deal about education.

(Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)While Roxane Gilmore is fiercely loyal to her husband’s political career, she is equally committed to her own life as a college professor. “But you know what I like best?” Baliles adds after a pause, “she’s a down-to-earth person. I tell her that in a few years you’ll be picking out lettuce at Ukrop’s like the rest of us. She understands that.”

With Sparky, the Gilmore’s “middle-aged,” mixed-breed dog under control, Gilmore launches into a tour of the Executive Mansion renovation with the group of attentive fellows. She moves from room to room and weaves historic fact with practical information — Martha Stewart meets sophisticated curator. All structural and design choices were based on careful analysis, not whimsy, she stresses. There was research in England and there were visits to such brand-name Virginia houses as Mount Vernon and Richmond’s Wickham House. “We didn’t just say we wanted to paint it this or that color,” she says, pointing to the deep shade of gray used throughout the first floor. Gilmore admits she was a little put off by the deep tone at first. “It was a little unusual. I remember the day they came in [after the paint analysis] and said the walls had originally been this color. More recently they had been a pale yellow. It was a dramatic change. But the house knew exactly what it wanted. It was a burden off me,” she says. “Alexander Parris [the Boston-based architect who designed the house] knew exactly what he wanted.”

In the ballroom, Gilmore relates how Gov. Harry F. Byrd in the 1920s supposedly purchased the room’s grand piano in lieu of a new limousine.

“Do you play?” asks one of the fellows, a young man from Newport News.

“Not so you’d want to hear,” she says with a laugh.

Moving into the dining room, Gilmore points to symbols in the custom-designed rug — dogwoods, seashells and tobacco patterns. She explains the table can be extended to seat 32 guests. But on those occasions she says her chair is awkwardly crammed against the wall and the governor is literally sitting in the doorway to the adjoining breakfast room. “It’s like a Batman movie,” she jokes in reference to the table’s overblown, Gothamlike dimensions that make conversation extremely difficult. “It’s like you’re in the next room.”

Eventually the group moves toward the front door. Passing the hallway raises a question about the double staircases.

The lady of the house seems in no hurry to conclude the tour. “Hang on, wait a minute,” she calls out to the now-straggling group. They halt in their tracks. “You hear all kinds of stories that the wider stairway was to accommodate women in hoop skirts. But I don’t know if I believe them.” Gilmore is too much the scholar to be comfortable without hard evidence. She says that research has found evidence of an earlier staircase, suggesting that the current stairs may never have even been brushed by a hoop skirt.

Finally, as the others leave, one visitor lingers. Gilmore picks up on her name, “I know your mother.” When told the woman will be in town later this summer, Gilmore responds, “Tell her to come down and see us some time.”

One gets the impression she really means it.

Jump to Part 1, 2,Part 2


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