October 17, 2003

The First Lady's First Impressions

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“When you’re around someone who’s having so much fun, it’s impossible not to have fun,” said Kathy Okun of her husband, President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77.

Cornell’s new first lady, Okun has spent the past few months getting to know the campus and has promised herself that she will decide upon her “role” at the University very soon.

“I’ve attended lectures, met with faculty, toured the campus, visited libraries — all the things I didn’t have time for in another life,” Okun said.

As Okun explained, her “role” will be different from any other job she has had in the past. She left her position as associate vice president of development at the University of Michigan. Now, at Cornell, “I define for myself the things I want to pay attention to,” she said.

“I’m sure [the role] will be connecting Cornell to its constituencies. Everybody we meet wants to give something back. I’m comfortable being in a linking role to help make it happen,” Okun said.

Born and raised in Michigan, Okun attended University of Michigan, where she got her doctorate in education. Okun was in charge of fundraising at Michigan and worked in development until this summer, when she and Lehman moved to Cornell.

“Life is different. Michigan and Cornell are a lot alike, though. Even though Michigan is twice the size, many of the complexities are the same. They are both schools with great reputations, highly regarded faculty and competitive students,” Okun said.

She remarked that there is also something different about Cornell. “Ivies have their own mystique and history,” she added.

As for Ithaca, Okun feels it’s a very easy town to live in. She and her husband reside in the president’s house on Robin Hill. Okun said that when she drives up to her house, she still thinks, “This house is so beautiful. Who lives here?”

She continued, “It’s very startling to live in a fishbowl. We are known everywhere we go and I’m still getting used to it.”

Okun likes to think that she has two speeds — on and off. Lately, she has found little time to be “off,” especially with her husband’s inauguration today. The couple spends a lot of time traveling and, whenever they get the opportunity, they go visit their children who are back in Ann Arbor. Besides their two teenagers still at home, the Lehmans have a daughter at Massachusetts Institute of Technology Graduate School, a daughter who is a freshman at Columbia University and a sophomore son at Cornell, Jacob Lehman ’06.

Okun loves the excitement that comes with being first lady, although at times she finds the extensive traveling — like visits to Doha, Qatar and New York City in the last week — to be exhausting.

Despite all the work entailed, Okun still enjoys the traveling. “It gives us a chance to show Cornell around the world,” she said.

This is what she hopes to do when she secures her role at the University.

“Part of recruiting students and faculty is to show that we are not isolated, that we have a link to what’s going on around us,” Okun said. Aside from responsibilities Okun plans to take on within the University, she hopes to find time to read, cook and possibly join a choir.

“I have a good life. I feel lucky,” Okun concluded.

Archived article by Jessica Liebman