ISLAND PEOPLE – A wealth of experience
Newport Charter review chairwoman comes with a wide-ranging resume
By Sean Flynn – Staff writer http://newportdailynews.com
NEWPORT — Isabel Griffith likes going to Newport City Council meetings, which are a far cry from some of the other settings in her life.
Take for example the Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Va., where she was associate head of school and academic dean for several years. The town was also the home of the Middleburg Hounds, who kept up the tradition of fox-hunting with their Middleburg Hunt.
“The girls would sometimes fox hunt, usually two or three of our best riders who were very brave,” Griffith said about her former students. “When they missed classes because of a fox hunt, it would drive the faculty nuts. But sometimes I would be with the girls.”
Griffith, 75, has found enjoyment in many endeavors in her life, but she has a soft spot for private boarding schools for girls at the highschool level, where she has lived and worked.
“Schools with female faculty and staff made a difference in my life,” she said. “Some of the things I did, I never would have thought of doing if I didn’t have that experience. Single- sex education is empowering for women when all the leadership roles are filled by women.”
Since moving to Newport 16 years ago, Griffith has drawn from her leadership experience to fill some key roles in the community. Recently, she took on the chairmanship of the city’s Charter Review Commission, which will be considering potential changes to city government that are sure to be controversial. Recent sessions — in which the possibilities of having a popularly elected mayor or doing away with city wards were discussed — already are generating comment in the community.
As a former president of the Point Association and the Alliance for a Livable Newport, in which she is still an officer, Griffith is familiar with controversy. She was at the helm of the association when the state Department of Transportation’s plan to run a downtown access road along the train tracks next to the Point caused a firestorm in the neighborhood and led to many meetings.
Griffith was born and bred in Dallas, where New England “Yankees” are considered a foreign and enemy tribe.
“I was not a happy Texan, but I never thought I’d move to New England,” she said. “In Texas, living with Yankees is unthinkable.”
For her, that outlook has flipped.
“I’ve been a very happy New Englander, much happier than I was as a Texan,” Griffith said. “It’s been a great life for me here. I can’t imagine anyone moving from New England to Texas and liking it.”
Griffith graduated from Southern Methodist University in Dallas with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and taught small children for a year afterward.
“I was terrible at it,” she said. “My timing was all wrong.”
Returning to SMU, she earned a master of science degree in biology and taught high school biology, chemistry and physics, but mostly biology. She married a lawyer in 1965 and moved to a small farm in Middleburg, where he practiced law and she taught full time.
“He enjoyed going to race tracks and one day he brought home a horse,” Griffith said. “I began looking after the horse and that’s how it all started — a period of raising and racing horses.”
They moved to a larger farm and eventually had nine horses, six dogs and “about the same number of cats.” There was a constant turnover with the horses.
“I ran the farm and researched the horses,” Griffith said. “We bought one to three yearlings a year and raised them to the age of 2 with a trainer at the farm.”
The horses then were sent to racing school in Maryland. Griffith and her husband raced the horses in New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware, besides Maryland.
“We actually made money in the racing business,” she said.
During that time, Griffith taught at the Madeira School, a girls boarding school in McLean, Va., and began working on her doctorate degree at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she also taught.
After 15 years of marriage, she and her husband separated and she moved onto the Foxcroft School campus where she had been teaching most recently.
“I thoroughly enjoyed being married, and my husband and I remained friends afterwards,” she said. “I would recommend the experience to anyone.”
But she had places to go.
Griffith moved in 1983 to Chicago, where she was principal of the Latin School of Chicago, a large independent co-educational school.
“It seems I never stayed at one job too long,” she said. “If I looked at my resume as an employer, I would say, ‘It doesn’t look like she develops much loyalty.’ After three years in Chicago, I got itchy feet.”
The next stop was Princeton, N.J., where she worked as an educational consultant for 11 years for Independent Educational Services Inc., placing school administrators and teachers.
“It was a long-term assignment for me,” Griffith said. “I lived right across from the university where I’d spend time at concerts, lectures and other events. I thoroughly enjoyed it there, a small walkable town with an easy connection to New York City.” Changes came though, and she moved to Washington, D.C., for a year. The move to Newport took place after she was hired by Educational Directions Inc., in Portsmouth, where she was a an educational hiring consultant for private schools. She helped find academic deans, administrators and principals for lower and middle schools.
“It involved a lot of travel,” she said. “I’ve been lost in all the major cities of the U.S. For me, trips were measured by the number of plane rides. A five-plane trip was really pushing it. Travel became just awful for me.”
Her home, a 1728 Colonial house on Walnut Street, became her refuge.
“I love my garden, although it gets very jungle- y,” she said. “It’s not a tidy New England garden.”
She retired six years ago. Not owning a TV or a cell phone, she now finds enjoyment in reading and attending City Council, planning and zoning board and neighborhood meetings.
“The people are bright and dedicated; they think about stuff,” Griffith said with a smile. “I find it so interesting to be a part of things that are important, at least at some level.”