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A Personal Look at George Mason's First Family

By Carrie Secondo
Fours years into his tenure, President Alan Merten jokes about his wife Sally's fortune-telling skills. "She has the ability to predict the future, but her crystal ball is a little cloudy," he says, laughing.

In 1994, while Merten was on leave from his post as dean at Cornell University, he and Mrs. Merten were renting an apartment in Falls Church while he worked on a project for American Management Systems. As the couple drove west on Interstate 66 one afternoon, passing signs for George Mason University, Mrs. Merten suggested he step down from his current position at Cornell to pursue a professorship at George Mason. That was less than two years before he became George Mason's fifth president.

When Merten decided to pursue a position as a university president, he realized his wife would have an enormous amount to contribute as a president's wife. She was such a good support for Merten and so good in the community, he wanted her to have the opportunity to be a more visible community leader as well. "I thought it would be more of a shame if she never got to be the wife of a university president than it would be if I didn't become a university president," Merten says, with a grin.

Thought of by some as an unsung hero, Mrs. Merten considers herself a "big cheerleader" for the university. "Sometimes, some of the better aspects of the university don't get as much publicity because [Northern Virginia] in particular sees us as a technical university," she says, adding she is always looking for opportunities to boast about George Mason's less touted aspects, such as its Creative Writing Program, Theater of the First Amendment, and the College of Nursing and Health Science.

Those who know and work with Mrs. Merten consider themselves fortunate to have done so. "She has been blessed with a terrific gift for making people feel good about themselves and what they do," says Liz Larranaga, wife of George Mason's men's basketball coach.

Mrs. Merten keeps a full schedule with volunteer service activities. She serves on the boards at WETA Public TV and Radio, the Virginia Opera, and the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. She is also involved with the Medical Care for Children Partnership, the annual Fairfax Fair, Gunston Hall Plantation, and serves on George Mason's Women's Advisory Board.

With different meetings and volunteer activities to attend, Mrs. Merten never has a typical day but does make time for her cardio-workout at the Aquatic and Fitness Center five days a week. She is very supportive of George Mason's athletics and can often be spotted at several games a week.

"She does far more than anyone would expect from a university president's wife," says Lucy Church, a friend of the Mertens and leader in the community.

Whether it is a Sunday morning at Lord of Life Lutheran Church, an opera at the Center for the Arts, an alumni event, or a weeknight business dinner, the Mertens enjoy being together. "When I came here, I let people know . . . that the chances of me being willing to attend an event were a lot higher if we were both invited," Merten says.

When asked to describe their marriage, both President and Mrs. Merten state simply--it's a partnership. Like spouses in any strong marriage, the Mertens say they know each other very well and help each other as much as they can-- personally and professionally. Ann Wingblade, the president's assistant, says, "They can read each other like a book."

Mrs. Merten received her bachelor's degree in nursing from Avila College, a women's college in her hometown of Kansas City, Mo. After graduation, she joined the Air Force and moved to the Washington, D.C., area, where she met her husband.

Merten, who was an Air Force officer working at the Pentagon and the White House, had been admitted to the Andrews Air Force Base hospital with a perforated ulcer. "At one of the worst moments of my life, I met someone who, in a sense, made my life," Merten says. His nurse, Mrs. Merten's roommate, introduced the two, and they were married two years later.

The couple has two children: Melissa, 28, and Eric, 30. "I always thought it would be neat if they grew up to be professors, but they were both more interested in business," Mrs. Merten says. Eric has an M.B.A. from George Washington University and currently works for AT&T broadband in Denver, Colo. Melissa, who speaks four languages, just received an M.B.A. from Wharton and a master's degree in international studies from the University of Pennsylvania. She will be living with the Mertens at Mathy House while she searches for a job in the local area.

Mathy House, the official residence of the university president, is just minutes away from the university down a private drive and surrounded by 10 acres of land. "Mathy House is the university's house, but our home," says Mrs. Merten. This fall, the Mertens will continue their tradition of hosting dinners for friends and prospective friends of the university.

With full schedules, the Mertens often pencil each other in for a Friday night date, and when time permits, they enjoy retreating to their beachfront condo in St. Augustine, Fla., taking along their 11-year-old cat, Tigger, whenever the trip will last more than a few days. Mrs. Merten reads mystery novels, does needlepoint, and likes to see the latest movies on big screen, while Merten walks five miles a day, reads, and watches C-Span. Occasionally, she admits, they can be caught guessing prices along with contestants on The Price Is Right.

Earlier this year, Merten was recruited by a presidential search committee from the University of Florida, where he served as a dean. He initially agreed to become a candidate but eventually withdrew before his interview. When word got out that George Mason's First Family could be heading south, the couple received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls.

"I realized in the last four years, we had built up a network of professional contacts and friends and relationships that is truly unique--ranging from good friends whom we've met though the university to personal relationships with the governor, members of the General Assembly, and business executives," says Merten.

He also realized how much Mrs. Merten was appreciated in the community. "At a WETA event, Sharon Rockefeller came up to us--she grabbed Sally's arm and grabbed my arm and said, 'you two can't leave,'" Merten recalls. "She didn't say to me, you can't leave, which was very symbolic for me." After discussing the alternative, the Mertens agreed to stay at George Mason.

In May, George Mason's Board of Visitors approved a six-year contract extension for Merten. When asked what the Mertens have planned for their future, both are uncertain. "Every other job I've had, for as long as I can remember, I've always thought about what I wanted to do next, and to me, the real joy of being at George Mason is that I don't think about it. The only thing I think about is I can't envision separating myself from here or not living here in Northern Virginia," he says.

Mrs. Merten agrees. "I can see us spending part of the year in Florida and the rest of the time here--with access to all the wonderful things in Virginia, the District of Columbia, and the Maryland shore, I can't think of a better place to be."


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