Towson University President Maravene Loeschke, a former actor… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
As the chandeliers began to swing and the ceiling panels shifted to and fro, the interviewers seated around the hotel conference table seemed uncertain how to react.
Was Baltimore really experiencing an earthquake? In the middle of a meeting vital to the future of Towson University?
Maravene Loeschke probably had the most reason to be nervous. After all, she was the one interviewing for the presidency of her alma mater. But in her many years as an actor and director, Loeschke had seen performers nearly flattened by falling curtains and productions marred by rain pouring through the ceiling.
"You just don't get fazed by stuff later in life," she says.
So on that shaky August afternoon, she coolly suggested that the interview move to the parking lot, and she kept right on giving polished answers as the world went a little crazy around her.
"We were all playing with our BlackBerries, which had to be at least mildly distracting," says former state regent David Nevins, who was on the search committee. "But she didn't miss a beat. She's a pro."
The episode summed up a view Loeschke has held for many years — there is no skill she uses as a high-powered administrator that she did not hone in the theater. Loeschke, who took over the top job at Towson earlier this month, might be the only college president in the country whose academic background is in acting.
But she regards the progression as logical, not exotic.
"Everything ties back to it," she says of her experience in theater. "Conflict resolution, debate, time management, critical thinking, people skills. I mean, I even know how to use an electric saw."
It goes beyond the multiplicity of talents she developed. Loeschke knows that many people regard acting as a form of lying. But she sees it as quite the opposite, a search for the truth about who you are in a given scenario. If you master that ability, you can come off well in any setting.
"Much of life is about wearing the right persona at the right time," she says.
Rarely does a day go by when she does not discuss her unusual path from theater to president's office. "Some people just love it," she says. "They say we need something different. Other people find it astonishingly inappropriate. But it's always a conversation. I don't mind it; it makes me a little bit unique."
She grins, recalling a recent conversation with Towson theater majors. One of them told her, "Thank God you're here! My parents always ask me what this will lead to. And now I can say I'll be the president of a university."
Loeschke, 65, has faced some anonymous grumbles about her academic background. She earned her doctorate from the Union Institute in Cincinnati, which has long specialized in degree programs for students who don't take classes on campus. Loeschke does not shy away from talking about it, noting that the school is accredited. She says she wanted to study the use of mime to promote self-expression among blind students and that her plan didn't fit with more traditional doctoral programs.
Nevins says the committee interviewed candidates with more ostensibly prestigious degrees but adds that it would have been a "sad day" if Towson had turned up its nose at one of its own graduates.
"We didn't concentrate on her academic discipline," Nevins says. "We were more interested in who she was and what she would do. The support for Maravene was overwhelming."
For those who know her best, Loeschke's affinity for leadership is nothing new.
Dick Gillespie sensed a commanding presence about Loeschke from the moment he recruited her to Towson's theater program in the mid-1960s. He got so used to following her lead, in fact, that he married her years later.
"It doesn't surprise me at all," he says of her rise to leading thousands of students and faculty members. "She needs to run things. The main reason is that she likes to get things done, and she hates to be under someone who doesn't know how to get things done."
Loeschke grew up in Parkville and recalls a childhood world of rich imagination and innovation in the alleys between the rowhouses. She and her friends couldn't afford to go to a miniature golf course, so they made their own.
"I started about five businesses in that alley," she says. "I was a bossy little kid, so they let me."
The first day she walked into Parkville High School, she saw tryout signs for a student production of "Our Town." She got the lead part.
She fell in love with the stage and made plans to study theater at the University of Maryland. But her life's course changed when an abrupt man showed up in her high school drama class, saying he needed recruits for a new acting program at Towson.
"I did not care for him at all," she says of that guy, Gillespie. "Except he was brilliant, and he set the bar so high for us."
When she declared that she'd study theater, her father, a county highways worker, said, "I'm not paying for that." But Loeschke didn't care.