In July 2012, First Lady Laurie and President Lyle D. Roelofs, previous residents of Hamilton, N.Y., joined the Berea College community. Together they made the move from one college town to another as the president transitioned from serving as Colgate University’s provost and dean of faculty to the Berea presidency.
“When Lyle was offered the presidency,” Laurie Roelofs said, “the board gave me the choice of working my own position or fulfilling a supportive role to my husband. We’ve always considered ourselves as a team, and we thought it was wonderful to be invited to work for the College in that sort of arrangement.”
“Mrs. President,” aptly named by Berea students, has been a pillar of compassion and support for the College. Among many things, she sits on the Students of Concern Committee, comprised of those in leadership roles (student life, counseling, dean of the chapel, etc.) who identify and provide extra support for students in need.
In being accessible to the whole community—students, faculty and staff—the First Lady embodies the “Berea Family,” disregarding hierarchy and offering advocacy and support wherever it is needed.
The Monarch Waystation and her support of Berea’s butterfly populations is perhaps one of Mrs. Roelofs’ most significant contributions to the campus. Many years ago, while teaching pre-K students and after noticing the heartbreaking annual decline of the monarch population, she decided to support their numbers by learning to raise them and teaching her young students about their fascinating life cycle.
“I know it’s probably a drop in the bucket if I raise 200 monarchs every summer, but I hope eventually it adds up,” Mrs. Roelofs said.
Thanks to her, Berea College is now home to three official Monarch Waystations, two additional milkweed patches and multiple pollinator gardens that provide nectar sources and safe breeding grounds for the local butterfly population and for those traveling through as they migrate north in the spring and south in the fall to their overwintering grounds. The largest and most visible waystation is on campus near Edwards Building and the Fee Glade, another lies behind the President’s Home on campus, and a third is at the Boyd and Gaynell Fowler Child Development Lab (CDL). Mrs. Roelofs also continues to educate others about monarchs, including the CDL children and children from other schools as well as the students in Prof. Ron Rosen’s Zoology 101 class, who have enjoyed joining her in collecting eggs at the campus waystation for raising as part of their lab experience.
Mrs. Roelofs, with the help of Rose Adams of the Grounds crew and assistance from the College Farm, also created a wildflower garden down on Alumni Field, which is visited every summer by lots of humans and winged insects.
As delightful as they are, the monarchs are not the only essential pollinator Mrs. Roelofs has been rehabilitating. With the support of John Paul DeJoria, co-founder of Paul Mitchell Systems and Patron Tequila, Berea has partnered with Grow Appalachia to become a certified Bee Campus under the auspices of the Xerces Society. This non-profit program encourages campuses to provide healthy habitats to support pollinators because they are essential for plants to grow. The College campus is pesticide- and herbicide-free and home to many native plant species, making it the perfect candidate for the program.
Mrs. Roelofs also goes the extra mile in protecting butterflies and bees and other pollinators. “I know I drive the groundskeepers crazy,” she said, “because early in the spring there will be really
tall grass outside the house, but I won’t let them mow because of the spring beauties and dandelions that the butterflies need as do the bees.”
A busy bee herself, she has not stopped at supporting sustainability practices at the College. Mrs. Roelofs also plays a key role on the Frost Committee, named after Nellie Frost, third First Lady of Berea College, under whose leadership the Boone Tavern Hotel and Restaurant was originally built. The Frost Committee oversees the hotel and restaurant and contributes to supervisory and administrative decisions.
“It was a tough spell for the hospitality industry during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mrs. Roelofs said. “Hotels and restaurants were shutting down right and left, but we were determined to stay open to create a safe and clean space for travelers, and because we realized how hard it would be to restart operations if we ever closed down and lost our dedicated staff and regular clientele. We did have to close the restaurant to in-person dining, but we were able to keep it open and active serving take-out—locals will remember how popular that option was here in town—and room service, so that our visitors were well taken care of.”
Although the First Lady hosts events, co-leads in the President’s Walk/Run Club, plans dinners and entertainment for the Board of Trustees, sits on several important committees, attends Mountain Day and so many campus events religiously, supports her husband and (most would agree) truly runs the show behind the scenes, she is best known to students for her friendly interest and care for them.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, she and President Roelofs usually ate lunch in the Mountaineer Dining Hall on Mondays, inviting students to join them for fellowship, to share concerns or just to enjoy time together. Also, it wasn’t uncommon for students to attend dinners and events hosted in the President’s Home. The Student Government Association was invited every year to come over for hot chocolate and treats and to decorate the Christmas tree, and there were fun occasions when students cooked for the Roelofs, so they could enjoy a meal together. During the pandemic, Mrs. Roelofs carried on with her love and support at a safe distance—rather than students coming over to decorate the Christmas tree in the house, she placed a small tree and weather-proof ornaments outside on the deck for the students to decorate and for passersby to enjoy.
In June, the College will say farewell to the Roelofs as they relocate to Michigan and begin a well-earned retirement. That will be hard for everyone concerned because there is mutual appreciation and much love between the campus and the Roelofs. “There is just something so special about Berea students,” Mrs. Roelofs said. “They have shaped me in many ways and made me a better person; I will miss them SO much.”