As you can imagine, it’s been a very strange and sad few weeks since we found out that Vol State’s president, Dr. Orinthia Montague, passed away suddenly.
Other people have eulogized Orinthia much more effectively than I ever could, so I just want to provide one anecdote here that reveals the best parts of her approach to the presidency as I saw it.
Being a college president is very difficult job because the buck stops with you. Presidents of community colleges lead complicated organizations and have to make decisions in the best interest of the mission and, above all, the students. Sometimes those decisions make many people very unhappy, and they’re not always shy about sharing that discontent.
But every once in a while, the president gets to make an easy decision that pleases every single person involved. Last spring, Orinthia came to the opening reception for the Vol State Student Art Show with the express purpose of purchasing a piece of student art for her office.
(Sidebar: She was wearing a spiffy black track suit and sneakers, which told me she’d spent the day meeting only with Vol State folks. Her “dress for your day” policy that relaxed our dress code was an early change that was universally embraced and beloved; heaven help any future administrator who tries to reverse it.)
While parents took pictures with their students and hungry art majors snagged cookies, Orinthia prowled around the gallery and carefully contemplated each of the artworks, occasionally stopping to chat with a faculty member or student artist.
Finally, she stopped in front of a large, intricately detailed pencil still life that the then-Vice President of Academic Affairs, Dr. Jennifer Brezina, was also admiring.
Although neither of them knew it at the time, this drawing had been awarded the Best in Show prize by the juror. The artist, a second-year student, was graduating and had been accepted to the Kansas City Art Institute. It was marked NFS (not for sale).
I walked up to Orinthia and Jennifer, and told them about the student getting into a prestigious art college to finish her bachelor’s degree. Orinthia looked at me and ordered, “Find out how much it would take for her to sell this piece.”
When asked, the student admitted that her car needed new brakes for the drive to Missouri, and she would give up the piece for $350. It was clear she thought no one in their right mind would be willing to pay that much, and that was why she had marked it NFS.
She was wrong. As soon as Orinthia learned the price, she and Jennifer engaged in a protracted and friendly bidding war in front of the student, her eyes getting bigger and bigger as they went up in $50 steps. Finally, at $600, Orinthia gave an amused huff and said, “Split the price and you can keep it in your conference room, Jennifer?” They each shook the student’s hand and she thanked them profusely.
When the student delivered the piece at the end of the show, she found out that Orinthia had added an extra $400 to the price.
I remember that Orinthia seemed genuinely impressed with the work of all of our students that day, but she really delighted in being able to give them an extra boost as they moved on to the rest of their academic careers. (I don’t think she minded teasingly upping the price on one of her vice-presidents, either.)
Orinthia recognized the talent and drive of our students and took joy in supporting them in ways big and small. No president is perfect, but a heart for students can balance many of the role’s necessary evils. She had that, without question.