As the wife of Emory's eighteenth president, JoAn Chace reconciles traditional expectations, modern demands, and personal goals
By Allison O. Adams
As Mademoiselle magazine essay contest winners in 1956, JoAn Johnstone and a handful of other young women spent a glamorous summer in New York City as "guest editors" of the fashion magazine. They lived in the Barbizon Hotel, the college dormitory-like landmark that was a temporary home to promising young writers like Sylvia Plath, Diane Johnson, and Sandra Gilbert, who participated in the same program in other years. The students wrote articles and attended editorial meetings, witnessed celebrated productions of such plays as Waiting for Godot and The Iceman Cometh, and visited style and beauty authority Helena Rubenstein in her Picasso- and Matisse-filled penthouse.
The superficial business of fashion magazines juxtaposed against the city's rich cultural and intellectual landscape presented a maddening dichotomy to JoAn. "At the same time that we were going to the theater and meeting great writers, we were sitting around the table talking about whether chiffon was going to be a fabric that college students were going to be wearing in the next year," she says. "It was a schizophrenic experience. . . . Should I be thinking about these paintings on Helena Rubenstein's wall, or should I be thinking about what color my lips are?"
Since that eventful summer, JoAn Johnstone Chace has sought ways to reconcile clashing demands and to strike a balance among her roles as mother, teacher, writer, editor, and wife of Emory's eighteenth president, William M. Chace. "My life is a mosaic, which is another way of saying it's kind of a mess," she says with a laugh.
Raised in small-town Oregon, she is a self-proclaimed "responsible hedonist" who learned discipline from her mother, a homemaker, and a love for nature from her stepfather, a railroad freight agent and outdoorsman. "If Spenser was a poet of the delighted senses, I am a person of the delighted senses," she says. "I love being in the outdoors and taking time to see the world."
After her Mademoiselle experience, the magna cum laude English graduate of Pomona College in Claremont, California, opted out of fashion journalism. She instead chose graduate school in Renaissance literature at the University of California at Berkeley, but not without some trepidation. "My decision to go to graduate school was comically wrenching," she says. "I thought it probably meant no marriage, no family, only a career as a teacher. I felt the idea of trying to have a career meant I would just have to put aside happiness in order to continue to read books." Her choice was made even harder by her family's resistance. "It broke my parents' hearts," she says. "They didn't like Berkeley, they didn't like the whole thing. They thought I should come home to Oregon and be a high school teacher."
Despite her grim expectations, she enjoyed graduate school, which led her to study in France on a Fulbright grant and to teach at Hunter College in New York. In 1962, she met one of her Berkeley neighbors, another graduate student in English, on their apartment building roof. He was reading in the sunshine, and she was cultivating a small garden. "I had wanted to meet Bill because we were such near neighbors that I could hear him and his roommate laughing all the time," she says. "I thought, What an interesting phenomenon, this person who is having so much fun." The Chaces married in 1964. A year later, JoAn completed her dissertation and earned her doctoral degree. She taught literature at area community colleges.
In 1968 the Chaces moved to Stanford University, where Bill, who had recently completed his doctoral degree in modern American and English literature, joined the faculty. The year also brought the arrival of their first child, Will, and tough decisions for JoAn about balancing career and family. When Kate, their daughter, came along in 1972, JoAn was teaching composition classes part-time. "When a really difficult choice came up between work and children, I've always chosen family," she says. "The women with whom I grew up [embraced] the dominant philosophy that the chief role of a woman is to raise children well. We tied it in to social progress. How can we have a progressive country unless we have children raised well? The few people who didn't think it was the only role were kind of on the fringe. . . .
"I have always had a divided identity, if not a subdivided identity," she adds. While Bill advanced from the Stanford faculty to associate dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences in 1981 and to vice provost for academic planning and development in 1985, JoAn raised their children and nurtured what she calls "small careers" in teaching, writing, and editing. Her projects have included a poetry anthology, a book about problems in secondary public schools, and most recently, Ride the Tiger to the Mountain: T'ai Chi for Health.
When Bill became president of Wesleyan University in 1988, JoAn acquired a challenging new role--president's spouse. She strictly avoids the title first lady, saying, "the sooner that term fades out of use altogether, the better." She explains that the position of a university president's spouse is an evolving and enigmatic one. "A large piece of it is defined by the habits and customs of the institution--being at public and private events, welcoming guests to the house. . . . Another part is more free, but it has expectations to it. It's informed by the idea that if you, a woman, occupy a role in which your spouse has quite a large public role, you will take on `a project.' "
At Wesleyan, she established her identity in the community as an advocate for environmental concerns. She developed a walking tour of Middletown, Connecticut, encouraged recycling and grounds preservation at Wesleyan, and organized the restoration of a campus rose garden. She also read student papers in several courses and taught a class in T'ai Chi, which she learned in 1988 while working on Ride the Tiger to the Mountain. She and her husband now practice the martial art daily as a way of managing the delicate relationship between career, family, personal goals, and the social expectations of their public roles.
"Everything about the process [of T'ai Chi] is putting you through the motions of restoring a kind of internal balance, which is also balance in the universe," she explains. The martial art strives for a harmony of Yin, the replenishing and taking in of energy, and Yang, the more active release of energy. "I still need more Yang . . . ," she says. "But I feel that my life is in fair balance between social and intellectual."
JoAn Chace says her ambition at Emory is "to find my place in the context of my own history and training, rather than reaching out for something that seems to be appropriate to a spouse or imposed from without. I'd like to feel that my local role overlaps with my deepest interests and my efforts in the past." She has begun by instructing a freshman composition class and becoming acquainted with the Emory Women's Center. She also has two goals as a writer, to compose "one good piece of scholarship and one good piece of journalism." Getting to know Atlanta and Emory has also required much of her time and energy. "I think this is an extraordinary place," she says. "People are really working hard to make an interesting, open, and vibrant city. And to find out that Emory is a key institution in this particular world is truly exciting."