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Presidential spouse Bruce Jacobson carves out his new role

  • Joining the Tribe:
    Joining the Tribe:  When his spouse, Katherine A. Rowe, is inaugurated as William & Mary’s 28th president on Feb. 8, Bruce Jacobson will take another step in his new role as a member of the community.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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When his spouse, Katherine A. Rowe, is inaugurated as William & Mary’s 28th president on Feb. 8, Bruce Jacobson joins the community as our first First Gentleman.

Since moving to Williamsburg, Jacobson has been telecommuting out of the President’s House. He travels for his work as a telecommunications consultant, and he’s found local squash and golf games as part of his lifelong passion for sports. He and Katherine have been immersed in campus activities, found favorite restaurants and spots to visit and explored the local area.

In advance of the historic Charter Day and inauguration/re-investiture ceremonies, W&M News caught up with Jacobson about his new role. How are he and Rowe settling in? What should the W&M community know about them?

What does Katherine’s inauguration mean to you and your family?

This will be the third official event focused on Katherine. The first was her announcement, the second was her swearing-in and now the inauguration.

It’s been good to have some time between each of these ceremonies. Each time, you realize it’s a meaningful moment for the institution, and of course for us personally, to recognize that Katherine is the first woman president in the institution’s 326-year history. We’re thrilled to be part of that history.

What have the first six months here been like for you?

It’s a whirlwind, as you can imagine, for us to be in these roles. Katherine was a provost, certainly a significant leader at Smith College. But it’s another whole level being the president and for me being the spouse of the president, because she’s a public figure and hers is a highly visible role.

The way this house is situated on campus, as soon as you step out the door you’re in public. We are always cognizant that we’re in the public eye, representing William & Mary, and we want to do that well. That means being prepared for almost anything the moment we step out the front door.

We’ve been welcomed with open arms by everyone – students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and members of the local community. At the symphony, at local museums, at the places of worship we’ve visited, we are immersing ourselves in a very diverse and vibrant community. It’s been an exciting six months, and so far we can’t imagine being anywhere else.

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Can you give a rundown on your work background in telecommunications and how you got interested in it?

I’ve always been a math and science kid. All through elementary school and high school, those were my favorite classes. I tinkered and built kits (remember all those small electronic kits?). I spent a lot of time in Radio Shack.

I went to the University of Pennsylvania and started out as a physics major, then transferred to electrical engineering. After my first job, I went back to grad school to MIT in a program that trained engineers with a heavy dose of public policy.

I realized that if I stayed an extra year, I could get my M.B.A. Katherine and I had always decided we would look for jobs in places where we both could work. As an engineer with an M.B.A., I figured I would be more employable geographically wherever we might end up.

At MIT, I joined a research group working on the emerging HDTV standard. Digital video became a new career path for me when we landed in New Haven, Connecticut. At Southern New England Telecommunications, I built a statewide digital video distribution platform — really one of the first of its kind. And then that launched the rest of my career.

After spending almost a decade at Comcast, I got the entrepreneurial bug. I started working for a small software company; we grew it and eventually sold it to a larger software company. When the recession hit in 2008 and 2009, like many companies, we went out of business. I joined QVC to run their broadcast engineering department.

After that, as our children graduated from high school, it became clear that Katherine was going to be moving up rapidly. We could end up anywhere. That’s when I decided to hang out a shingle and start a consulting practice. I’ve been consulting since we moved to Northampton, five years ago, and continue to do that work here.

How do you see your role as the president’s spouse?

I have found there’s no roadmap for the role of First Gentleman. That is exciting. I have freedom to define my role, and the way I look at it is I want to support Katherine any way I can, and I want to be engaged. I hope alumni and members of campus will know me personally — not as Katherine’s spouse, but as Bruce, a member of the community. Of course, the fact that I work full-time shapes my calendar and my level of engagement.

We attend sporting events, campus meetings and student productions. When students host events, we try to go to as many as possible. We are social, and we love being out and about. And not just with William & Mary groups, but groups in Williamsburg.

People get to know Katherine a little bit better by knowing me, so it’s great just to support her. It’s fun for me to represent William & Mary in the role of a presidential spouse. Everyone’s been very, very welcoming to us, so it hasn’t been a hard thing to do. It’s just a question of ensuring we have enough energy to do it all and to engage well. So sometimes I have to remind Katherine to take an evening off to recharge – we will read or watch Netflix or sports.

What’s been the most surprising thing since relocating here?

I’m amazed how top-of-mind the history of Williamsburg and Jamestown and Yorktown are here. Every day, there’s another opportunity to learn about colonial America. I find that thrilling and realize it’s important to take the opportunity to learn the history that is so prevalent and visible here. It’s part of the identity of the town and of the state of Virginia. We’ve lived in Boston, and we’ve lived in Philadelphia, cities that are deeply engaged with history. And each of those places claims, rightly, that they are where the values of the United States were formed and created. But Williamsburg has an equal claim to make about being one of the founding places of representative democracy. That’s a rich but also complicated and sometimes painful history; this region explores that complexity more directly than in other place I’ve lived. So it’s amazing to live in a place that is reflecting constantly on how to tell our history fully and meaningfully.

Do you have a favorite place around Williamsburg to visit/eat/walk/retreat?

Historic Jamestowne is a place we keep returning to, particularly when we have friends or family visiting us from out of town. We find ourselves going there because first of all, it’s a beautiful spot right on the James River. And every time we go we learn something new.

The Archaearium (archaeology museum) is incredible. And the fact that it’s an active archaeological site is really cool. You can walk around the settlement and see active digging. When we have some time and want to get outside, Jamestown is where we seem to end up, and so I’d have to say that that’s our favorite spot outside of campus, so far.

Can you talk about your interest in Ultimate frisbee?

I’ve played competitive sports my entire life. I grew up playing tennis and soccer competitively. When I got to Penn, I wasn’t good enough to play those sports, but I wanted to compete and be part of a team. I found Ultimate, which was in the early stages of growth, nationally.

When I was a junior and the captain of the Penn Ultimate team, we made it to the semifinals of the first ever, college national championships. We realized that we were graduating one senior on the team and could win the tournament the next year. We dedicated ourselves to that goal and played about 120 games the next year. Our record was something crazy like 113-6, and we ended up winning college nationals my senior year – 1985.

Captaining that championship team was an incredible experience for me and life-changing. When you pick a goal and work hard to achieve it, it’s an amazingly affirming thing. My teammates became my lifelong friends. We still see many of them. We vacation together; our kids all know each other. Many of our kids now also play competitively – some have gone on to win their own championships.

How important has Ultimate been to your family?

People know that Katherine’s an Ultimate player and that she coached. We met playing competitive Ultimate in Boston. The community then was small, and there were a lot of Ultimate relationships. We joked that when Ultimate players date outside of that tribe, the relationship is going to struggle. The teams are very close and players get so fired up by playing and all they want to do is play. Potential partners sometimes have a hard time understanding that enthusiasm.

We traveled together to tournaments for the first several years of our relationship, and even after we were married. And then our careers slowed down once we had kids. But we continued to play in less competitive leagues, in summer leagues. We would bring our kids to the fields before they were old enough to play themselves. They’d come and hang out on the sidelines, as did the children of other Ultimate players. When our children were old enough to play in the Philadelphia summer league, all four of us joined a team together, which Katherine and I had dreamed of doing. Our team ended up winning the league that year and our teammates named our family the MVP. That was so cool.

What other sports have you been involved in?

About eight years ago, I discovered squash and now play it passionately. Although I’m not a truly competitive squash player, it’s just a really fun game.

At William & Mary, there are two squash courts and a club team that plays squash. They’ve been very welcoming to me, so I try to go to one or two practices a week with them. Then there are a few faculty members who play on campus, and so they’ve reached out and I have a couple of standing games as well.

And then, of course, golf. I played after high school, but then my time was taken up by Ultimate and I played golf rarely. When we moved to Northampton about four years ago, I decided I was going to make an effort to improve my golf game.

Moving to Williamsburg is moving to golf heaven. I’m a little bit busier work-wise and with William & Mary responsibilities, but I am able to get out on the links most weeks. There are a lot of people who play here, so there’s no shortage of opportunities. It’s a question of finding the time.

You now live closer to your children, Danny and Beah, who work in Washington D.C.  How often do they get to visit?

Being closer to the kids is one of the great things about moving to Williamsburg. At least once a month there’s a reason to go to D.C. And now that they’re just a car ride away, they can visit as well. They’ll be here for the inauguration.

What’s been the most fun thing you’ve done in your official role since arriving?

Riding in the Homecoming parade. That was tremendous fun. I was amazed at the size of the crowd along the route. So many people came out to show their support. I was amazed by the number of student floats in the parade, and how elaborate they were. I’d have to say that was the most unexpected and delightful thing I’ve been able to do in my role as First Gentleman.

Is there anything about living in the W&M President’s House that takes getting used to?

The President’s House is our home, and it’s a public space – a part of the campus that also belongs to the community. Katherine and I are thinking a lot about these two roles that the house plays, and how to blend them together. For example, I’m Jewish, so this year was the first time I’ve ever had a Christmas tree in my house. It was great to honor that tradition and share the house in that way with members of the community.

We share this house – and particularly the first floor, the public floor — with the rest of the William & Mary community. It’s a lovely setting, with incredible artwork and furnishings to gather in, and it’s our honor to share that.

Tell us something about yourself that people might not know?

We are Boston sports fans through and through. Both of our families are from the Boston area originally, and our earliest sports memories are watching the Celtics (Katherine) and Bruins (me). Boston is a sports-crazed town. I held Red Sox season tickets with my cousins, and I got to go to a World Series game this year, which was thrilling.

We have always followed college sports as well, but never really connected to one team. So it’s great to be at a D-1 school where we can be passionately attached. Go, Tribe!

Regarding the president, what’s one thing you’d really like us to know that she might not say about herself?

It’s probably obvious and it wouldn’t be surprising that she’s a reader. She loves to read and her tastes are very broad. You would guess she reads history, poetry, contemporary fiction. She does. You might not guess that she also loves detective novels, science fiction, young adult fiction and fantasy.

She has a voracious appetite for those genres, and our kids share her tastes. So our Amazon account is constantly multiplying with new writers such as Ted Chiang and N.K. Jemisin, as well as classics by writers such as Tamora Pierce, Patrick Rothfuss.

One of her favorites, I think she’ll say, is Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy — “The Golden Compass,” “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass.” It’s a retelling of Paradise Lost.” She teaches it together with “Paradise Lost” and describes it as among the most important works of literature in the late 20th century – that just happens to be marketed for young adults.