Before Liza Lee moved in, a fence separated the head of school's home from the Columbus School for Girls.
The historic estate along South Columbia Avenue in Bexley had long been part of the all-girls campus but, in the past, parents and students were rarely welcomed inside.
One of the first things Lee did was remove the fence. Then, she took that gesture a step further by inviting the CSG Parents' Association to hold one of its meetings at her home.
"It drew a bigger crowd," said Lori Ann Feibel, past co-president of the parents' association. "Who has ever been invited to the headmistress's house for a meeting? It was crazy."
Lee's hospitality and openness continued throughout the 2009-2010 school year-her first at CSG. She hosted more parents' meetings over coffee and tea, as well as some less-formal socials, including a pizza party at which students played hide and seek.
Feibel, who served on the search committee that brought Lee to CSG, said that Lee's charm, combined with her experience as an educator, made her a "package deal."
"She was a dream, as far as I'm concerned," Feibel said. "Getting her to say 'yes' was wonderful."
The feeling is mutual. "It's been better than I even imagined," Lee said.
When CSG first approached her in 2008, Lee assumed the school needed an interim leader. "I said, 'That would be great. I'd love to come for a year.' " Turns out, CSG had Lee in mind as a permanent replacement.
Her credentials include 14 years of leading the Hockaday School, a prestigious all-girls boarding and day school in Dallas. During her time there, student enrollment grew and annual giving doubled.
After retiring from Hockaday in 2004, Lee wasn't ready to hang it up. She directed a private foundation that started a public, all-girls school in Dallas, and went on to serve as the interim head of two more schools in Charleston, S.C., and Austin, Texas.
CSG offered Lee permanence, and the chance to be near several relatives and one of her closest childhood friends. Those connections were an important consideration.
"I've always loved Columbus," Lee said. She had visited many times and knew "enough people here to have a network that was larger than the school itself."
She accepted CSG's offer.
"I think of her as a female Gordon Gee. He's the same way--they want to know the kids."
-- Lori Ann Feibel, past co-president of the CSG Parents' Association
Lee, 67, now feels very much at home, but her heart still lies in Texas. Her husband, Will-and his work as a gastroenterologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center-remains in Dallas.
The couple, who have three grown children, take turns commuting between Dallas and Columbus nearly every weekend. They get through the week by e-mailing and phoning each other daily (three times, at least). Will said the arrangement isn't as complicated as it sounds-flying nonstop from Dallas to Columbus "is really quite easy," he said-and he supported his wife's move to Ohio because CSG provides a sense of stability that her previous interim jobs did not.
"These jobs are exhausting, but it's even more exhausting if you have to meet a new community every year," Will said. "I think this is actually a very good fit."
He summed up his wife's post-"retirement" career with a little humor: "Somebody once said she's a 'headmistress addict.' "
The New York native developed a passion for education as a child at the private, all-girls Brearley School in Manhattan. "I wasn't a top student," she said. "But I loved the world of school. And that's what sort of sent me towards working in a school. I loved the school community."
Lee found her teachers fascinating and their conversations interesting. "I wanted to be like them."
She attended Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where she majored in English and also met her husband, who at the time was studying at nearby Amherst College. Lee won a Woodrow Wilson fellowship for aspiring teachers at Columbia University, but after earning her master's degree learned that teaching jobs weren't easily handed out.
"No one offered me a job," Lee said. "I had no experience. I didn't get an education degree. I'd never taught a class."
She landed her first job in 1974 at Brearley, her alma mater. Three years later, she was promoted to head of the middle school. Her career path later weaved through South Carolina, back to New York, to Texas, back to South Carolina and then to Ohio.
Growing up in a girls-only learning environment allowed Lee to focus on her studies void of distractions, she said. Today, she strives to provide a similar experience at CSG.
She explains the value of an all-girls education this way: "The central task of growing up is answering the question, 'Who am I?' I think that an all-girls school or all-boys school gives children the chance to answer that question without having to refer to the opposite gender, so that you get your truest answer."
She paused, then added, "Having said that, I think that in a girls school we can focus on the ways in which girls learn best."
Making people feel important is one of Lee's talents, her husband said. And interacting with her students is clearly something Lee enjoys, said Joan Hill, CSG's director of Lower School.
"She is so joyful when she is listening to them and working with them," Hill said. "What is wonderful about Liza is that she includes them. She has advisory groups of students to help her with decisions and things that she'd want to run by the rest of the student body."
Much discussion went into several changes that Lee has already helped enact, including altering class offerings and schedules, consolidating to a single uniform for all seasons and re-naming the Mothers' Association the Parents' Association to be more inclusive.
"We have families with two dads. We have families with two moms," said Feibel, past co-president of the parents' association. "For years and years and years, we wanted to change it, but she gave us the courage to make that change."
Lee respects the traditions of CSG but wants the school to move forward, her admirers say.
"She is a very strong advocate and representative of an all-girls education, but on top of that, she has this wealth of experience," said Susan Tomasky, who chairs the Board of Trustees. "My first impression of her was that she knew exactly what she was doing."
Above Lee's desk, a red-and-gold school banner hangs. On it, stitched in Latin, is the school's motto: Forte et Gratum, which means "strength and grace."
Lee's calm, confident leadership style embodies that, said Terrie Hale Scheckelhoff, associate head of school.
"She's a small woman," Scheckelhoff said. "But she just has great strength and grace."
And she does not, as she made certain, have fences.