Hitting her Stride
Her son had died, and Kathy Ransier was frantic.
It was the pre-cell-phone era, and she couldn't reach her older son, who was in college out of state. Suddenly, she remembered that famed runner Stephanie Hightower-an acquaintance who lived a couple blocks away-knew a track coach at the school. So she dialed Hightower's number to make a brief plea.
"By the time I hung up, she was in my house," said Ransier, a Columbus attorney. "Seriously."
Hightower looked at the ailing mother and said, simply, "I've got it covered." She had contacted the coach, and the coach had dispatched people to the young man's apartment. He called immediately.
It was a tremendous relief on a gut-wrenching day. And while Ransier still chokes on emotion at the memory, Hightower's entrance makes her laugh.
"I tease her that this is when I knew," she said, "she was a world-class sprinter."
It's also when she was truly introduced to the woman behind the name, and she liked the woman so well that their casual friendship has transformed into a sister-like bond.
Stephanie Hightower, 52, was a world-class hurdler, first for Ohio State University, and then for the United States. After retiring from running, she started working in politics, eventually becoming the controversial president of the Columbus Public Schools Board of Education. Now, she's the president and board chairman of USA Track & Field, vice president of the Columbus College of Art & Design and a face at the table of myriad civic boards.
Her name has been in the news for decades, as has her personality.
And yes-she is driven and focused, strong-willed and outspoken, well-traveled and well-dressed. She expects a lot from those around her (just ask her son), and sometimes forgets others may not share her competitive drive (just ask her).
"Stephanie's got a very powerful aura about her," said Denny Griffith, president of the Columbus College of Art & Design.
"She's got splendid energy and intellect. I think the Olympian's drive that's in her is something you can't really hold back."
But Griffith and the rest of her inner circle says there's also more-a faith she doesn't wear on her sleeve, a killer sense of humor and, yes, a soft side (though never if her son leaves a mess in her meticulously kept kitchen).
As a teen in Kentucky, Hightower had her sights set on one university-Tennessee State. It boasted a nationally recognized track and field program, and was the alma mater of her idol, Wilma Rudolph. But the coach told her she was too slow.
So Hightower enrolled at Ohio State.
There, she was coached by an Olympian who had competed in her signature event-the 60-meter hurdles. By her second year as a Buckeye, Hightower was working toward a singular feat-competing in the Olympics. "Everything I did-in my body, in my mind, in my activities-was geared toward making the 1980 Olympic team," she said.
Meanwhile, she became a four-time All-American and 15-time Big Ten champion, never losing in the 60-meter dash, 60-meter hurdles or 100-meter hurdles from 1977-1980. She competed in Madison Square Garden, and in that hallowed venue set a world record in the 60-yard hurdles-7.36 seconds-that still stands.
And she made the Olympic team.
But because of political conflict, President Jimmy Carter decided to boycott the Olympic Games in Moscow. Hightower wouldn't have a chance to compete for the medal she was favored to win.
"It was definitely devastating," she said.
So, she recalibrated, and decided to try for the 1984 Olympic Games.
She graduated from Ohio State and put her career on hold to train three hours each morning and three or four more each night. She traveled around the world and made money racing. Adidas paid her to wear their shoes. She was the favorite to win the next gold medal.
But in Los Angeles, at the Olympic trials that determine who the country sends to the games, she ran a bad race. In a photo finish that is still used in seminars, there is a clear winner. But it's unclear who finishes second, third and fourth. After reviewing the tape for half an hour, officials ruled Hightower the odd woman out.
"When they finally announced it, I ran," Hightower recalled. "I took off out of the stadium, and ran for like 40 minutes. I just ran until I couldn't run anymore." It was even more devastating than the boycott, she said. She was numb for a week.
As the Olympic team alternate, she still had to train as if she would compete. She had to be fitted for a uniform. And she had to show up. But upon realizing everyone was healthy enough to race, she left. She couldn't even bring herself to watching the race on TV.
Now, with the wisdom that comes with age, she is friends with the runner who won, though her competitive side most certainly lingers. "We joke about it all the time," she said. "I tell her kids-your mom has my medal!"
Hightower, who lives on the East Side, was sitting among friends at a dinner party when she declared there was no way she was sending her preschool son, Cameron Baker, to Columbus Public Schools.
By that point in time, after holding positions with the Columbus Urban League (director of development and communications) and the Ohio Department of Mental Health (director of communications), Hightower had graduated to a high position within the mayor's office. She had heard harrowing stories about the schools.
"Why don't you run for the school board and fix it?" a fellow diner challenged.
In the ensuing weeks, local business leaders urged her on.
Hightower started researching the district, the board. She wondered whether she could make a difference. She visited a big-name consultant. "You can't win," he told her.
The proposition became a challenge.
She ran, and she won.
Hightower spent one year as vice president and five as president, working to reestablish the credibility of the board within the business community. They'd never pass a levy without business backing, she knew. So she regularly visited the most powerful leaders in the city and argued the district's case.
She plucked Cameron from his private preschool and sent him to a public elementary school, cringing when he arrived home with stories of kids stabbing each other with pencils or pushing him around. She paid tutors to supplement his education, fearful he wasn't learning to the levels she desired.
And she endured an onslaught of criticism.
In one news-making incident, a teen threw a rock at Hightower's car, and she promptly got out, chased him down, heatedly put her finger in his face and swore. The boy's family, and several community members, were furious. (She apologized.) In another, the district came under national fire after Mifflin High School administrators failed to report a sexual assault to police. And the bulk of her criticism came from fiery fellow board member Bill Moss, who served on the board for almost three decades. Moss, now deceased, called Hightower a "child" and put her on the hot seat when a reporter discovered she had moved Cameron from their struggling neighborhood elementary school to an alternative one without the proper paperwork.
Many people were put off by a personality they considered abrasive.
"I do have an edge," Hightower said. "I always want 110 percent, because I expect that from myself. I always want it done yesterday."
Through it all, though, Hightower put her athletic training to use. Stay focused, she told herself.
"As long as I can go to sleep at night, then I'm okay with the criticism," she used to say. "And I'm sleeping real good."
Griffith, who hired Hightower to work for him at CCAD at the beginning of her school board tenure, admired the way Hightower weathered the negativity. "There was so much conflict, and it was such a messy time," Griffith said. "Some of us would kind of get down in the dumps when the going gets tough, (but) she's got a core of steel. She's a very strong person and very resilient. And she's able to handle a lot of different things simultaneously, I think, with great energy and vigor, and she's really impressive that way."
Her accomplishments were impressive, too.
Under Hightower's direction, the district passed a $392 million bond to improve buildings, passed a levy providing more than $62 million a year and improved the district's credit rating, pulling it out of academic emergency.
"Stephanie is not necessarily the most diplomatic person in the world," former board president David Dobos once told The Columbus Dispatch. "She doesn't sweat the details. But the major issues that have to get done, she will make sure that they get done."
Still, Hightower knew the district would take years-decades, probably-to fix. As Cameron prepared to enter high school, Hightower refused to send him to their neighborhood school. She entered a lottery to get him into two other public schools, but was unsuccessful.
So she enrolled him in the private Columbus Academy and resigned from the board.
"I knew," she said, "it was time for me to move on."
Racing around the world, Hightower developed a love affair with arts and culture. She watched the opera in Berlin, walked through a cathedral in Milan and ate on the Spanish Steps in Rome. She toured Russia and Germany and Japan.
Now, she pours that passion into her job at CCAD, most recently completing the college's inaugural comprehensive fundraising campaign-and surpassing the $12 million goal by almost $1 million.
She also has remained active in the running world. Among other duties, she served as the women's team assistant manager for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and the women's team leader for the 2004 Olympics in Greece. As president of USA Track & Field, she enjoys the energy of being around vibrant young people, she said. "It also helps you maintain that level of intensity."
Her son, Cameron, 20, is the leading scorer on the Haverford College basketball team. (He tried one season of track, and "it was terrible," he joked. "That's the reason I chose basketball, so she can't tell me what to do.")
And recently remarried, Hightower is enjoying an intercontinental relationship with Englishman Ian Stewart, a former Olympian and current head of endurance for United Kingdom Track & Field.
"She's just a very strong, dynamic woman," said Connie Ballenger, a friend and owner of Upper Arlington boutique Leal. "She's a mother. She's an athlete. She's become this multi-continent kind of person. She has a really exciting, interesting life."
Hightower appreciates the ease of living in Columbus, Ballenger said, but enjoys how fabulous the rest of the world is, too.
"But having said all that," Ballenger added, "she's the person I can go have a glass of wine with and laugh so hard that your belly hurts."
As tough as Hightower is, her son said, she is equally as loving-and funny.
"In public, she has to be professional Stephanie. But at home, there's a side of Stephanie people don't get to see," he said. "Home Stephanie? Silly. Always fun."
And always, as Kathy Ransier knows, just a sprint away.
"I look at her as such an extraordinary friend," Ransier said. "I know that no matter whatever I encounter, there's a person that's a phone call away that's going to be here in seconds."
- United States Olympic Team Member
- USA Track & Field, President & Board Chairman
- Columbus College of Art & Design, Vice President of Institutional Advancement
- Columbus Public Schools Board of Education, President
- Ohio State University School of Public Policy and Management, Outstanding Public Service Award
- YWCA Women of Achievement Award
What does Hightower consider her three greatest moments? We asked.
- Setting the world record in the 60-yard hurdles at Madison Square Garden-a record that still stands.
- Winning her first elected official seat on the Columbus City Schools Board of Education-and raising more money than any other candidate in history to do it.
- Receiving the letter that her son, Cameron, had been accepted into the prestigious liberal arts school Haverford College.
It's no secret that Stephanie Hightower is one of the city's most stylish women. Here's a look at her fashion favorites.
"Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Marni. I continue to have a new fetish for YSL. And my favorite British designer is Stella McCartney."
"Love those red-bottom shoes! And I love Jimmy Choos."
"Bottega Veneta handbag. Splurge in the making? A Birkin bag. I know it's going to happen. It's going to happen one day soon. I don't know who's buying it yet (laughing). I don't want the little one, either. I want the big one."
"A Marni dress I got for $122 at an upscale consignment store in Boston."
"A big 'ole T-shirt and some socks-that's it! I'm not wearing all that lacy stuff anymore-itch yourself to sleep (laughing)."
"Roshae, and her shop is called NAPPS. She does natural hair."
Thoughts on style:
"I think it's an expression of who you are. And it's OK to publicize who you are. It's also a confidence booster for a lot of women, and it's OK. Sometimes you need that."
Stephanie Hightower has been civically engaged for more than two decades. A sampling of her causes:The Women's Fund of Central Ohio, founding member
- Greater Columbus Sports Commission
- Greater Columbus Arts Council
- Columbus Museum of Art
- Buckeye Ranch
- African American Leadership Academy
- United Way
MEET & GREET
"The old phone-I hate all that other stuff."
Restaurant of choice:
Favorite thing to do in Columbus:
"These days, it is my monthly book club meetings."
Running 30 minutes on the treadmill or outside before work, four days a week.