Partnership in the presidency
It’s nearly impossible to talk about the Garner presidency without including his wife Katrina. Best known for her student pizza parties, her many, many stylish hats, and the touch of Southern hospitality she brings to Iowa, Katrina Garner has become a fixture of campus and community life in the 15 years since the couple moved from North Carolina.
Katrina grew up in North Carolina on a tobacco farm near Ayden, a small town much like Mount Vernon, right down to the school colors. She credits her rural upbringing for the ease with which she became acclimated to life in eastern Iowa.
Katrina moved to Greenville when she was a sophomore in high school — the same high school Les attended, though he was a senior. However, they did not meet until they were both at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Katrina needed a ride home one weekend, and Les was the first to say yes. It only took that one car ride for him to ask her out to a movie (“Patton,” still one of her favorites). Eventually, they were married in 1972
Before Les became president of North Carolina Wesleyan College, Katrina was co-owner of a thriving catering business in Chapel Hill. Though she sold her share of the business when she moved to Wesleyan, she continues to take her cooking and hosting quite seriously. She even keeps a card file with a record of the menus for every college function she’s hosted in her 22 years as a college president’s spouse. Her attention to everything she prepares has earned her more than a few fans on and off campus.
According to Les, the late life trustee Don Typer ’27 once said, “Les, if you’re the price we had to pay to get Katrina, I guess you’re worth it.”
Katrina says that she and Les view themselves as stewards of the President’s House, a role they take seriously. They estimate that between 1,300 and 1,500 visitors come through their house each year. She considers it part of her job to make alumni feel like they are “coming home” when they are back on campus.
First year students start to feel that connection with the President’s House within the first few weeks, as Katrina personally makes pizza and desserts for new students each year, a tradition she started in North Carolina. “I fell into the pizza thing because I had no clue what a ‘president’s wife’ was supposed to do, but I knew I could cook,” she said.
Katrina has more than figured it out, according to nearly everyone who has worked closely with the Garners over the years. She has been praised for bringing a sense of culture and class to campus, for being an incredible asset to fundraising, and for maintaining high standards within the institution.
“She has established a place for herself in this area. We’ve been very fortunate to have her,” said Dennis Damon Moore, former chief academic officer.
Her place in Mount Vernon has been particularly prominent in the arts. She has been on the Mount Vernon Area Arts Council since its inception, and counts among her closest friends those she has met through the local artist community. “All the local artists are so supportive of each other,” said Katrina. “They’re interested in being creative, producing good art, and having fun. It’s a wonderful atmosphere of camaraderie.”
And while her importance to the local art community is often overlooked by Cornellians, her importance to the Garner presidency cannot be overlooked. Les Garner believes that the presidency is a two-person job, and that it is Katrina’s support and confidence in him that keeps him balanced.
“In a very real sense, this has not been my presidency, this has been our presidency,” said Garner.