A quarter-century has passed since Kat Imhoff first stood on the front lawn of Montpelier, the home of the Father of the Constitution.
Now, less than two months into her role as president of James and Dolley Madison's beloved estate in Orange County, the memory remains vivid and precious. Her initial visit occurred a few years after the National Trust for Historic Preservation inherited the 2,600-acre property in 1984, from Marion duPont Scott.
"At that time, I was beginning work with a group of folks about whether we could create a rural historic district to shine national attention on this portion of Virginia, which has been so rich in history for so long," Imhoff said during a recent interview.
"As a courtesy, I was going to places that would have been supportive and interested in this. At Montpelier, I was meeting with the first on-site manager the National Trust had put on the property.
"I remember the impact of seeing the house sitting up on the hill, and then turning and seeing the amazing view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I was very impressed with the evocativeness of the setting."
Members of the Montpelier Foundation were impressed with Imhoff when they were looking for a new president after Michael C. Quinn resigned. Quinn became chief executive officer of the American Revolution Center in Philadelphia last April.
When the search began, Imhoff was happily serving as state director for the Nature Conservancy in Montana. She had taken the job in 2007 after serving for eight years as chief operating officer and ultimately vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.
"We were thrilled when Kat joined the Monticello staff," said Daniel "Dan" P. Jordan, who headed the foundation from 1985 to 2008. "She was a great colleague, friend and ambassador for Monticello.
"Her two major responsibilities were building the new visitor center and overseeing the national kickoff of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commemoration. Kat was superb in both roles.
"Her appointment at Montpelier is a ten-strike. She is exactly the right person to build upon the strong foundation left by Mike Quinn."
Imhoff turned in an equally impressive performance in Big Sky country. During her five-year tenure with the Nature Conservancy, she headed up its Montana Legacy Project, which purchased 300,000 acres for $500 million.
The purchase constitutes the largest conservation project ever taken on by the organization. Imhoff said she has deep feelings for Montana and might never have left but for the opportunity to return to Virginia and lead Montpelier into a new era.
"If I could have stayed in Montana longer, sure, I would have loved it," Imhoff said. "But I knew the Montpelier job was, for me, a culmination of a lifetime.
"It blends this sense of enjoying history with this conservation ethic. It seemed like a really good fit, and I have family reasons. My parents live in Charlottesville, and friends I've had since I was 16 live there, as well.
"A lot of heart strings never got severed when I moved west. They kept tugging me back east."
Michael Lipford, director of the Virginia Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, has known Imhoff since 1986. Through the years, they have worked together on various projects and have become close friends.
"I first got to know Kat when she was a staff person for the Commission on Population Growth and Development," Lipford said. "She went on to hold several other positions, including being the executive director for what is now called Preservation Virginia.
"We co-chaired a land conservation coalition and I got to know her even better, and we became personal friends. I'm a Virginian, and while we lost her as a very effective and successful state director in Montana, I'm also glad to have her back in Virginia, where I think she feels most at home.
"The Montpelier Foundation couldn't have chosen a better person to run that organization with the skills, experience and passion she has. Kat has always expressed a great passion for the land, waters and cultural resources that are part of those landscapes, and has really turned that passion into direct results."
Imhoff was born June 15, 1958, in Salt Lake City. Her father was a water resource planner, so the family moved frequently, settling in this area when she was a teenager.
After graduating from the University of Virginia with degrees in urban and environmental planning, she started making a difference by working with local and state governments in land-use planning. Before her stint at Monticello, she also worked for the Piedmont Environmental Council.
Imhoff said she inherited her devotion to conservation and love of the outdoors from her father, who is a geologist. One of the things she noticed as her family moved from state to state was that important historic things, be they land or structures, survive only through the efforts of caring people.
"I spent a lot of my growing up in the piedmont of Maine, the area west of the coast," said Imhoff, who has been married for 27 years to John Pancoast Moore. "I was interested in all things forest- and water-related.
"And every time my parents had a chance, my brother and I were loaded in the car and driven to some historic site. Civil War battlefields of Virginia featured strongly in my upbringing.
"So I always had a real interest in history, particularly that which is embedded in the landscape and conservation of the outdoors. By high school, I was very interested in the power of the place, and being part of whatever that would mean in different settings.
"What does it mean to protect places and have them usable to people? That's what drove me to get a degree in planning. I don't think it was until I was out in the landscape of Virginia, getting the chance to wander the hills and mountains, that it really struck home with me."
Imhoff said the decision to dedicate her life to preservation and conservation wasn't so much a lightning-strike revelation as it was something that "seeped" into her. Along the way, there have been moments that assured her she had made the right career choice.
One of them came when Imhoff held a trumpeter swan in her arms just before releasing it into the wild as part of the Blackfoot Trumpeter Swan Restoration Project. In a 2010 interview with the Montana Association of Land Trusts, she recalled making eye contact with the swan and how that "eyeball-to-eyeball conversation" was life-changing for her.
Another milestone moment occurred Jan. 18, 2003, on Monticello's west lawn during the national commencement ceremony for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commemoration. Hosting the event were representatives of the Monacans, a Native American tribe that called this area home long before the arrival of European settlers.
"For me, the kickoff at Monticello was one of the biggest moments of my life," Imhoff said. "To have there 350 tribal representatives from the encounter tribes of Lewis and Clark.
"The story of Lewis and Clark, in and of itself, is an amazing story. But you realize they were only successful because of the tribes and Sacagawea, who made it happen. And then to know what has happened to these indigenous people subsequently is heartbreaking.
"And yet the graciousness of the tribal representatives was amazing. And the pride they still felt about their part in assisting the Corps of Discovery was really evident. It was the seminal moment of my life."
Imhoff said her time at Monticello provided her with the basic toolbox of skills necessary to running a historic site. She added that what Monticello and Montpelier both have done is think about history and using the sites in a larger way.
"Yes, it's about Thomas Jefferson, and, yes, it's about James and Dolley Madison, but there are so many other layers," Imhoff said. "These American stories and building blocks are not just about looking backward.
"It's really about knowing ourselves as a people and looking forward. I think at the core of it, both places have the opportunity for really big ideas that are nationally significant.
"The great Daniel Burnham quote says, 'Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood.' That's my takeaway from Monticello."
Jordan said Imhoff's strong belief in partnership bodes well for historic sites throughout Virginia and beyond. He added that he has long admired her vision, enthusiasm, professionalism and genuine concern for the well-being of her colleagues -- and one thing more.
"Kat has enormous energy," said Jordan, who now works with Bryan and Jordan Consulting LLC. "When she comes through the front door, the back door blows open.
"Kat and Montpelier are in for exciting times."
Imhoff has taken the helm of Montpelier at a pivotal time in its history. The $25-million restoration of the mansion has brought it closer to what the home was like during Madison's time. It has a new 15,000-square-foot visitor center, and the Center for the Constitution attracts scholars, teachers, police officers and political figures seeking to advance their knowledge of the Constitution.
In the spirit of a new and even more welcoming Montpelier, the property and trails are now open to the public for free. Tickets still have to be purchased to tour the house.
"We really want to open it up and have people enjoy the landscape here and be able to go for walks in the Big Woods," Imhoff said. "And also get to know James Madison as the naturalist and brilliant farmer that he was.
"But Montpelier is not just a house and a beautiful farm. It also represents democratic ideals and encourages interest in the Constitution.
"People are very interested in what the Constitution means, and how it's still a living, breathing, developing document. And the interest isn't just here in the United States, but globally.
"I think we're really poised to go to the next level as a historic place on the Mid-Atlantic, if not nationally."