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Montpelier's Kat Imhoff on James Madison: "I've ended up really liking this guy"

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The Innovator: Kat Imhoff

Montpelier President and CEO Kat Imhoff, pictured here with a James Madison bobblehead, will leave her post Nov. 30. 

The first in a new series on innovative and visionary thinkers in Orange County

Kat Imhoff has been president and CEO of The Montpelier Foundation at James Madison’s Montpelier for seven years. During that time, she has opened the grounds of the fourth president’s home to the public, overseen the installation of the award-winning “The Mere Distinction of Colour” exhibit on the lives of enslaved people, ensured that nearly 2,000 acres of land at Montpelier are protected for posterity under conservation easements and raised more than $60 million for Montpelier’s operation and endowment. She has been a tremendously successful and innovative leader who has elevated Montpelier’s stature nationally and internationally while also making the estate more welcoming and accessible to local residents through free-admission days and numerous celebratory events.

A native of Salt Lake City, Utah, Imhoff, 61, grew up traveling all over the country with her parents and younger brother, thanks to her father’s career as a water resource planner. The family rarely lived in one state for more than a couple of years. In addition to Utah, she lived in Wyoming, California, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Idaho, Maine and Nebraska before the family moved to Virginia. To some, that might sound hard, but Imhoff remembers her peripatetic childhood with delight. After graduating from Herndon High School, she earned a B.A. in urban and environmental planning and an M.S. in planning, both from the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture.

Imhoff began her career as a planner for Albemarle County and was soon taking on positions of increasing responsibility and visibility. She served as chief operating officer of the Jefferson Foundation, which oversees Monticello, from 2000 to 2007 and as state director of the Nature Conservancy in Montana from 2007 until her arrival at Montpelier in 2012.

As she prepares to leave Montpelier on Nov. 30 and begin a new phase of her career as a senior conservation fellow at the Piedmont Environmental Council, she sat down in her office at Lewis Hall and talked about what has shaped her as a creative thinker and visionary leader.

What were you like as a little girl?

Oh, adventurous and outdoorsy. We lived in some of the most beautiful places in the United States, and [my parents] were always very much into, “Let’s be outside.” So I just had an idyllic childhood. I was the child who left in the morning with the book of matches and the hot dog and made the fire in the woods—but also pretty independent. You had to be, if you move that much. You become self-reliant. I loved the out of doors.

Do you have brothers and sisters?

I have a younger brother, a little under two years between us.

Did you hang out together?

We were forced by circumstance to be often tossed together, and we never did little moves. I mean, we moved from Boise, Idaho, which was a fairly sophisticated city. My parents moved us in the middle of the winter in a century snowfall to this little place outside of Bangor, Maine, where every little girl had long hair and I had a pixie haircut and cat-eye glasses. It was a shock. And my brother and I were some of the first new kids to go into the school system in several years. You learn to swim quickly in new circumstances if that’s what’s happening to you.

Has that had an impact on your career, the moving around and having to adapt?

Yeah, and I think it’s always made me interested in trying new things. … I tend to like to come in where there’s situations where I feel like I can make a lot of change and kind of move the ball and then I’m very happy to pass the ball or the baton or whatever metaphor you want to use to the next person and let them run after it. Somebody the other day said, we think your motto—they told me how to say it in Latin and I can’t remember anymore—is “Do hard things.” I don’t deliberately set out that way, but I do like challenges, things that are different.

I also think as women, those are the jobs that are open to us. I think that women oftentimes get the jobs that sometimes other people would maybe not take or we’d look at a little bit differently, that may have more risk inherent in them.

Whom did you look up to when you were growing up?

I’ve been very fortunate in my life of having had really great friends and mentors along the way. My parents are incredibly resilient people.

I grew up Unitarian so that kind of background I think makes a difference. We were always told that part of your life duty is to serve others and to be present in this world and to be very focused on justice. And that’s just always been the protocol growing up.

I was fortunate when I was here in Virginia, to meet—who is still my best friend—[philanthropist] Sonjia Smith. And we’ve just been bulwarks … since we were both 15. … So we’ve been friends for a long time. But I’ve always made a point of trying to find other professional women [and build] a strong network of conservation- and preservation-minded women that I’ve stayed friends with all these years.

Have you encountered sexism in your career?

Absolutely. What woman could say she hadn’t? It’s been very evident that I’ve always felt like I had to do more and do it harder and do it longer to even get into the same space to be considered. And so sexism was alive and well, and it’s still alive and well for women. It is not an easy shot out there, if you are really trying to get things done.

The kind of words that women get described by are not the same as men. You know, rather than being forceful, you’re pushy. You can just go through the adjectives about how women are described as leaders versus men.

And the fact that growing up, I did not have as many female role models—or I didn’t know about them. They were there; that was not a history that any of us got taught in school. We didn’t learn about women role models; we didn’t hear about diversity role models. And I think that’s one of the best things that’s changed in the last couple of years is, these more complete American stories benefit all of us.

I find it interesting that your career has been about both the future and the past. Can you tell me how you weave those two together?

To me, it makes my relationship to the world so much deeper when I can see the different layers and where you can read a landscape. I feel so fortunate having a horse, foxhunting and being on horseback a lot. I got to see Virginia from horseback and see … into the mountains along the old trails.

I’m sure this came from my parents, my upbringing, because we always visited historic sites as well as [spending time] in natural areas. So they’ve always been to me the same coin, just different sides. Historic preservation and natural area conservation just seemed to go hand in glove for me.

Tell me more about how you envision the future of any given place through the lens of the past.

There was a book that I read when I was 15 called “A Pattern Language,” and that probably influenced me as much as anything. It was really about, for us to have meaning in our lives, how do we find a way to live not only with one another, but to live honorably within our place and to have a stewardship that is not only about our few years on this planet, but sets the course to link the past to the present and into the future? It’s kind of that “seven generations” responsibility that one has to the world. So Montpelier is a great example of it because here you have what was a working plantation, and yet before Madison, of course, it was a place where the Monacans lived.

What do you think about before you fall asleep at night?

Money. … There is so much financial need here. And we’ve just gone through a big cycle where we built up a lot of stuff. We had wonderful funding from David Rubenstein [and] now that we’re closing out that chapter with him, we’re having a little pause moment here while we have to regroup and figure out what’s next and it’s such a struggle to find donors.

When was the first time you really thought about James Madison?

I’ve been coming off and on to Montpelier since the 1970s because I was at UVA, and so I came to the [Montpelier Hunt] Races. I never thought about James Madison when I came to the races! I was coming to see Marion du Pont Scott’s estate and enjoy this wonderful day of horses running around the track.

Madison became more apparent and real to me, obviously, when I was working at Monticello. I mean, here he is, Jefferson’s best friend. The octagonal bedroom at Monticello was always called Madison’s bedroom. And so, reading deeply about Jefferson, it became more and more apparent to me how incredibly important Madison was. And then I read this book called “Madison and Jefferson” and there’s a reason why Madison is first. And it really opened my eyes to how he’d been overlooked. … I’ve ended up really liking this guy.

Like all of us, he had his flaws, but he feels very intriguing to me, and it doesn’t hurt that he also wrote a lot about conservation. Here he is looking at the Blue Ridge Mountains being decimated, and all the trees being cut down, and he sets aside 200 acres because he can see the loss of the forest in his lifetime. He sees the soil depletion, and he’s writing, before Thoreau, very insightful things about agriculture and what we would now call conservation. So he just ends up having a very modern sensibility to me.

Have you ever had a dream about Madison?

I have, actually. You know, I have often wondered if there are ghosts at Montpelier. I have never felt his ghost. But yes, I have had dreams where he’s featured, mostly giving me advice, and it’s been advice usually in the money-worrying area. Because I know Madison worried a lot about money.

But the other thing about Madison that really attracted me is Madison never gets the credit that I think he is owed for his incredibly brave stance on freedom of conscience. … And he’s not just for freedom of religion; he’s for freedom of conscience. And he goes on to write in one of his letters [about] the freedom to have no religion at all. There was no [other] Founding Father that goes this far. So of course, growing up Unitarian, I find Madison incredibly intriguing.

What would you ask Madison if he were to walk in the room now?

Oh, I would completely say, “Really? Did you really have to make that devil’s bargain to save the union by keeping slavery? Could you, in retrospect, have pushed the envelope more?” Because clearly to save the union, [the Founding Fathers] made concessions on slavery.

What would you want to show him?

The fact that you can have a society where both men and women and people of every color can participate equally. Yeah. It would be so cool.

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Hilary Holladay covers education and politics for the Orange County Review. The author of five books, she is currently writing a biography of the poet Adrienne Rich.

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