AU's New First Lady

Nancy Ladner brings her southern charm and volunteer spirit to AU

Oh, that Southern hospitality!

It's not often that you find yourself being offered a peanut butter cookie (with real chunks of peanuts mixed in) from the First Lady of a major university.

Nancy Ladner, the new first lady of AU, comes to the university from the South with a heavy dose of charm and a plate of cookies with which she disarms unsuspecting Eagle writers. She possesses an electric smile that lights her face with energy and warmth, and it streaks across her face as she speaks about her plans for building the AU community and even when she talks about moving hundreds of miles away from her friends, her kids, her home and her dog Max.

If her seemingly endless good humor and undying optimism for the future of AU is any signal of what the presidency of Dr. Benjamin Ladner is going to be like, then AU is in for vast improvements. In the two short months that she has been here, Mrs. Ladner has gotten to know the campus and faculty, as well as some of the students at the TDR picnic last Friday where she served food to students.

"I think it was just excellent and the most fun thing I've done yet," she says, flashing a smile. "The students were receptive, very interesting; a diverse crowd."

She also says the unique makeup of the student body and the city-inspired activities intrigued her.

"What attracts students to AU is the opportunity to be committed to some pretty interesting political issues, and therefore I think the students are already a little more involved and a little more interested in important issues than perhaps at some other universities," she says from the sitting room in the front of her new home behind AU. "Just by being here, (the school) draws a special kind of student."

Mrs. Ladner's main goal as first lady of AU is to build the community, not only the internal on-campus community, but the relationship AU has with its neighbors, a relationship, which to say the least, has been a bit tense over the years.

Her plans include becoming a liaison between the surrounding community and the university by entertaining students, administrators and neighbors at the new president's residence on Glenbrook Ave.

The new house, which sits back from the road behind terraced walls laden with yellow and pink flowers, was bought buy the Board of Directors for the Ladners in order to provide a space with entertaining and personal living capabilities. Hard-wood floors and Persian rugs dominate the house, and on the walls hang paintings from the AU Watkins gallery.

Ladner says that she wants to improve AU "by building community relations - building good relations with the students, building good relations with the neighborhood and hoping that will help," she says. "Communicating with both is important."

Ladner would like to get out and meet the students and be there to take part in any and all activities where she is wanted. She is eager to become a part of the university is ambitious about being an integral part in transforming it into a university for the future. Bubbling with energy and enthusiasm, she says she is willing to use that energy to work with AU, and devote herself to it.

"I do want to be present," she says. "I want to attend functions ... we look forward to basketball games, we look forward to performing arts, we look forward to an awful lot of events."

Originally from Mobile, Ala., Ladner has spent the last 20-plus years living in Atlanta, Ga. She has been a teacher of English in grades seven through 11, a social worker, a mother, a community volunteer and a wife. Despite the requirements of managing such a busy career, Ladner has always stayed focused on the things that matter to her.

"When I started having children, I went into real estate because that filled in nicely with being a mother," she said with a mild but proud smile. "Then I became a full-time mother because I wanted to commit as much time to the children as I could."

With her children grown up, (they range from 23 to 30 years old now) Ladner found the time to devote herself to other things that interest her, like social work, community volunteerism and helping others in the Atlanta area.

"I've done everything from fundraising to hands-on Habitat for Humanity kind of things," she says, reflecting on her ten years of volunteering. "I have run the spectrum on volunteer work."

Ladner also spent time in a "halfway house situation" counseling physicians who were addicted to drugs. She counseled those who were trying to readjust after going through chemical withdrawal, but weren't ready for reentry to their profession, and she says that although it was tough, it was a rewarding job and she felt like she was helping people.

It's not hard to imagine Mrs. Ladner helping others. She dresses smartly, in a dark blue suit/dress, but her face reveals the caring of a mother. She is soft yet strong, businesslike, yet fun. She is clearly capable and more than willing.

While both Mrs. and Dr. Ladner accepted the AU job as a challenge waiting to be met and were extremely excited about the prospect of leading the university, Mrs. Ladner says that it was still tough to actually leave when the time came because of her close friends and family in the area. She and her friends moved from Mobile to Atlanta, raising their families together. They were like brothers and sisters to her.

"My daughter said 'Mom, you're not supposed to be the one leaving, we're supposed to be the ones leaving.' It was hard," she says, moving on to talking about her friends. "We literally grew up in together and have raised our families together. That's why I think it will take 12,000 to 13,000 people at American University to fill the void," she finishes with a grin.

Part of her void is caused by the fact that her dog Max had to be left behind in Atlanta in her old house with her two youngest kids. Ladner is looking for some way to get her dog here, and is considering things like obedience schools because he isn't well-behaved enough for the new president's residence.

"I miss my dog terribly," she says with a sigh. "I think the students would love him. If anybody has any suggestions for Max, please let us know," she finishes with a laugh.

Ladner says another part of the void she wants to fill with AU, her children, miss their parents but are also happy for them for grabbing the opportunity to be in a place where they seem to fit so well.

Some people, who do not really know the Ladners, seem to think that it is actually Mrs. Ladner who makes the decisions for the president, as if she is Hillary Clinton pushing Bill to do what she wants. Ladner is quick to dismiss this is foolish.

"No, I do not push Ben Ladner," she says with a good-hearted laugh, as if it's the silliest idea she's ever heard. "You will learn that Dr. Ladner makes all the decisions for the presidency. I do not make the decisions for the presidency, I am just very supportive of him."

The laughter with which she dismisses this and the speed in which she adds that he only supports him in his job and does her own things too, suggests that these two work well together, with their good humor and pleasant manner. Even on his way running (physically running!) out of the house, Dr. Ladner stops to greet his guests with a handshake and a smile, despite the fact that he is under a magnifying glass and high expectations from the campus community.

"It's a big responsibility," Mrs. Ladner says. "In fact, I would say that it's an awesome responsibility, but it's something that is not uncomfortable for us. We welcome it."

This seems to be the whole outlook on AU from Mrs. Ladner's point of view - as if AU is a challenge, but a challenge that doesn't have to be met with grit teeth or with fear, but a challenge that excites her, would make her happy to meet head on and overcome.

In this way, there are actually like the Clinton's. They come into a place where the community spirit has been lacking, and they meet it face on with optimism and energy and ambition. Mrs. Ladner wants to heal the hole in AU's community spirit and if she keeps planning her improvements and the students are willing to help, then she might succeed.

She seems happy to be here, with that smile lifting her face constantly, and even though she had to leave her friends and her kids and of course, poor Max the dog to be here, the prospect of doing something good for the unique students she describes with so much enthusiasm, it's probably worth it to her.

Kind of makes AU seem a little more important already.

Never miss a story

Get our weekly newsletter delivered right to your inbox.

More from The Eagle