January 6 - Palm Beach Post: RPCV Donna Shalala stands tall in Miami athletics as President of University of Miami

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RPCV Donna Shalala stands tall in Miami athletics as President of University of Miami

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RPCV Donna Shalala stands tall in Miami athletics as President of University of Miam*

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RPCV Donna Shalala stands tall in Miami athletics as President of University of Miami


The Palm Beach Post

Sunday, January 6, 2002

Coral Gables, Fla. -- A cement pillar stands near the center of Donna Shalala's spacious University of Miami office, just a few steps from the president's desk. It is there for structural purposes, helping to hold up the building and such, but for instructional purposes, too.

"Go Canes!" says the flashy, floor-to-ceiling custom paint job on the post, one that wore a more quiet, institutional tone as a witness to all the important and dignified meetings of UM presidents past.

There, in one glance we've learned quite a bit about Shalala already. She's not stuffy, like so many academics. She's not afraid to wed the terms "student" and "athlete" with more than a meaningless hyphen, either. Truth is, after six months as president she's just about the most enormous supporter of the Hurricanes' athletic program ever, and that's saying something for a woman 5 feet tall.

"My rule is that I sit the first quarter of every football game in the stands with the students and the last quarter, too," said Shalala, who made no exception for Miami's Rose Bowl national championship victory over Nebraska Thursday night. "In between, at halftime, I usually have guests in my box upstairs that I have to go schmooze with. My preference would be to be outside for the whole game but presidents have responsibilities."

Shalala takes hers seriously, as one might expect of the former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, but enjoys taking them on the short hop, too, as befits a long-ago second baseman for the West Boulevard Annie Oakleys, a city softball championship team from the Pigtail Leagues of western Cleveland.

"When I was 9 or 10, I guess, George Steinbrenner was the playground director at the park where I played in Ohio," Shalala said. "He was a college student at the time and just working at the playground as a summer job. Helped coach our team to the championship, as a matter of fact. I run into him all the time in New York. I'll get him involved in the University of Miami yet. Hey, I'm one of his former players."

All this name-dropping is fun for a power broker who used to play an occasional round of golf with her boss, President Clinton. "He's a good golfer, an 80s shooter," Shalala said, "but he probably plays in the 70s now."

Volunteered in Iran

That's because Bill has left the politicking to Hillary. Shalala never stops punching at weighty challenges, which is how she got the nickname "Boom Boom."

At 20 she was a Peace Corps volunteer, living in a mud hut on the plains of Iran and teaching the locals to read English-language agricultural equipment manuals. At 47 she was chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, the first woman to lead a Big Ten university. At 52 she took control of the Health and Human Services department, a sprawling federal bureaucracy like no other, and began an eight-year run that is a record for that job. Now, at 60, comes the challenge of reconnecting with college students at Miami, and of making South Florida's overall interest in the university more than a rosy bandwagon ride to Pasadena and back.

"President Shalala is so enthusiastic and such a strong supporter of our program, but it's more than just our program," Coker said. "She's a supporter of our players and coaches. After the Sept. 11 tragedy she talked to our entire team to let us know what had taken place. She told the players that certain people wanted to take away some of our fundamental rights, such as athletics and games, and we weren't going to allow them to do that. We have one Muslim player, Sherko Haji-Rasouli, and she spoke to him on the side in native Farsi, which he speaks. I was thoroughly impressed."

So are the students and staff members who arrive at the on-campus wellness center weekdays at 7 a.m. only to discover that Shalala already has beaten them by a half hour, riding the exercise bike, pounding the treadmill, getting a running start on a day that will bring her in contact with students and professors and department heads and reporters and business leaders and, yes, athletes of all types. In Shalala's office is a souvenir football from Wisconsin's 1999 Rose Bowl victory, but a volleyball honoring Miami's newest sport for women, too. Shalala played tennis as a collegian at Western College for Women and for recreation in recent years has turned to in- line skating and mountain climbing.

Golf she's picked up, too, but primarily for the opportunity to talk business on the course.

"She has the unique ability to read people," said Steve Malchow, Wisconsin's associate athletic director for communications. "That may be her strongest skill. Multiple times she would call me and say, 'That was a tough loss this weekend. Do you think it would do any good for me to come by and cheer up Alvarez and say hang in there?' She wanted athletics to do well. She kind of understood that if we got to the Rose Bowl some year, that would be free publicity for the whole institution, and you can't buy that kind of free publicity."

Successful mother

Now it was the Hurricanes in the Rose Bowl, a quirk of the Bowl Championship Series and its rotation of national championship sites. All that changed for Shalala was an ensemble of Miami green rather than Wisconsin red. The rest of it, using this opportunity to promote Miami as a major research institution of science and medicine and law, comes naturally enough. So does the frantic pace, as demonstrated by her mother, Edna, a practicing lawyer back home in Cleveland who only now is contemplating retirement at the age of 90.

"She's a caring person," said Edna, an elite amateur tennis player in her youth and a USTA national champion in both singles and doubles in the women's 80s and older category. "When Donna comes to Cleveland, she doesn't want to talk politics or anything else, just family. She tells me I should come down there and take courses and pass the Florida Bar. She's got my room all ready."

Shalala has a twin sister, Diane, who lives on a rural North Dakota wheat and barley farm with her husband and four children. Donna, unmarried, is so different in so many ways.

Her father, a Lebanese-American realtor named James, was a staunch Republican. Donna, inspired by John F. Kennedy's plea for social activism, is intensely liberal in her politics. Shalala worked in Jimmy Carter's administration as well as Clinton's, a champion of single mothers and underprivileged children. When Clinton assured his staff he had no sexual involvement with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Shalala strongly defended him in public. Later, after it was clear the president lied, witnesses say she challenged the president at a Cabinet meeting for not placing moral leadership on an equal plane of importance with policy achievements.

It is a matter of timing alone that Shalala is not the one dealing with the crushing issues that face Tommy Thompson, President Bush's Health and Human Services Secretary. Anthrax, for one, and other previously unimaginable terrorist threats to the nation's health.

"I don't think very much about that," said Shalala, who in true inside-the-beltway fashion still starts each day with a scan of The Washington Post's Internet edition. "You have to absorb yourself in your next job. It's somebody else's job now. I worry about the country, obviously, but I don't try to second-guess my successors.

"It's fascinating. I'm a bit of a CNN junkie and I devour the newspapers, too, like everyone else, but I still read the sports page first. I did when I was in Washington."

Shalala headed the American delegation at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, throwing out the first pitch at a women's softball game between the U.S. and Japan. Her primary function, however, seemed to be accompanying Chelsea Clinton from one sports venue to the next, always stepping in to block reporters and photographers who occasionally infringed on the first daughter's personal space. Shalala's size is no impediment in cases like these.

"It seems," said Edna, Shalala's mother, "that she has the magic touch."

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