As a 6-year-old ranch hand, Krista Newkirk helped install electrical outlets in the house her family built together, rode a feisty Appaloosa, and began raising her own beef cow — all before bankers foreclosed on their property. Later, she worked 30 hours a week while earning her bachelor’s degree in just three years. Then came law school, private practice and a Fortune 300 company. Next thing you know, she’s an administrator at a large university where she built a reputation for gracefully fielding anything thrown her way. Meet Converse College’s tenth president, who, at 44, brings experiences as varied and improbable—and yet as fitting—as any the College has likely seen in its 126-year history.
“I love that her life story is one that our students can truly relate to in ways we never imagined when we sought a new role model for students on our campus.”
“I love that her life story is one that our students can truly relate to in ways we never imagined when we sought a new role model for students on our campus,” says Board of Trustees Chair Kimberly Varnadoe Kent ’97, whose term began the same day as Newkirk’s: July 1. Kent served on Converse’s presidential search committee, whose 13 members unanimously selected Newkirk from among 18 candidates. A recruiting firm discovered Newkirk at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she had been chief of staff for four years. “We knew she could come in and carry on the momentum that Betsy Fleming started,” Kent says. “We loved Krista. Her interview was incredible, her résumé was amazing, and she just knocked it out of the park from day one.” Newkirk’s coming-of-age tale begins in Japan, Missouri, about 75 miles southwest of St. Louis, just off storied Route 66. The dot on the map is so remote its only school district, for grades K-8, has just 70 students. Clearly, the place still shapes who she is and brims with resonant memories. Among her favorites is a $700 Appaloosa named Doc—“he was really the ugliest horse!” She saved enough money to cover the purchase by sowing and hoeing in the family garden, at 25 cents per row.
“We get this horse home, and it would rear up and try to roll over on us,” she says over coffee at Hub City Bookshop, where she wanted an interview setting more casual than her still-spare office. “And so every day, I would come down to breakfast—a tiny, little 6-year-old—and my dad would say, ‘Are you gonna ride that horse today?’ and I would say, ‘I’m thinking about it, Dad, I’m thinking about it.’” Finally, that inevitable day trotted in. “When Doc reared up with me on its back for the first time, I did the only thing I knew how to do. I let go of the reins, and I hit it on top of the head as hard as I could, and it dropped back down to all fours. Doc never did that again.” The youngest of three children and the only daughter, she still appreciates Doc’s medicine for overcoming her fears, though she chuckles at a question about whether she ever administers the same management technique. “What I learned at a young age,” she concedes, “was to overcome my fears, to get into that uncomfortable spot and to persevere through it.” At UNC Charlotte, where she served as the first chief of staff for Chancellor Philip Dubois, she did just that time and time again. Not long into her job, she was tasked with organizing a three-day visit from the University of North Carolina system’s Board of Governors. It was the board’s first large-scale meeting on the Charlotte campus since 1970, and Newkirk had to muster a 200-member team to handle the event. Media flocked to the gathering. A student protest, which was not related to the college, was stirring things up. And six inches of snow blanketed the gathering’s first day.
“You can listen to her life story and know she’s going to roll up her sleeves and get busy. She’s even better than we thought she’d be.”
“Because of protests, she had to move the meeting, during the meeting, in order to allow the meeting to function,” Chancellor Dubois recalls. “She had already put in place contingency plans, and she pulled it off. It was widely acknowledged to be the best, most effectively run meeting they’d ever had, in spite of the circumstances.” Newkirk, incidentally, also served on the search committee that selected Dubois. He is now in his 12th year and is clearly one of her biggest fans. “If you ever have a crisis, you have the right person.”
And let’s not forget her sense of humor. “Krista and I laughed a lot together, even though our two jobs were so difficult,” says Dubois. He recounts how instrumental she was in starting the Pride of Niner Nation Marching Band. The university had launched its first NCAA football team and a marching band was required. Newkirk found herself in charge. She determined how much such a project would cost and how to pay for it, then managed construction of a building for practice space once the school discovered the first location was “too close to 2,600 sleeping students,” as Dubois points out, referring to nearby residence hall rooms. The band’s inaugural season in fall 2015 comprised 150 members from among the university’s 28,000 students. “We had some challenges there,” he says of the multimillion- dollar program, which not only wasn’t in Newkirk’s official job description but doesn’t even appear on her curriculum vitae. “She has a great sense of humor. She understands that some things in higher education don’t move from A to B all the time, but she’s flexible and creative.” When the invitation to apply for Converse’s presidency landed in her inbox, Newkirk was preparing for a new leadership role with UNCC. She let the email sit for a couple of days. “I thought about it, I did some research on the college, and I was intrigued. Converse really called to me––to my passion for women’s issues, and for women having a voice and being empowered to become leaders. And I thought, okay, if I’m ever going to look at a presidency, I’d want to look at a place like Converse.”
Breanna Waldrop ’17, who gave Newkirk her first campus tour, says the initial thing that struck her was that Newkirk had already read Dr. Jeffrey Willis’s 128-page history of Converse, published in 2001. “It really impressed me that she took the time to do that,” says the 21-year-old Art History senior from Campobello, SC. “She seemed very poised, very confident, and I was impressed with some of the strides she’d made, especially hearing about her childhood, and putting herself through college. I think that really resonates with a lot of college students.” As for the new president’s future, Waldrop is optimistic: “I think she’ll bring a new eye, a new voice to Converse. I know we were all worried about the president we would find for Converse because Converse is a unique community.” Newkirk is definitely unique—after all, how many students seeded their college fund with a literal cash cow? “My dad’s plan for us was that he would give each of us a cow, and we would sell their calves when it was time. Then we would put the money into savings, and that would go to help us buy our first car or whatever we needed when we went to college.” Her parents attended college but never graduated. The value of a higher education degree was impressed upon Newkirk when the ranch, with its 200 head of Hereford-Angus cattle, faced foreclosure.
“Converse really called to me–to my passion for women’s issues, and for women having a voice and being empowered to become leaders.”
“My father didn’t have a lot of alternatives open to him because he didn’t have a college degree, and my mother didn’t either. We lost the ranch, and my dad died of a stroke all in one year,” she recalls. “I saw how we were at the mercy of our environment because of the lack of education.” “I swore that I was never going to be in that situation, and so I decided, very young, that I would go to law school because it was going to be important for me to learn what I needed to know to protect myself and my family.”
Her family today includes her husband of 16 years, Lew Glenn, a Naval Academy grad and lawyer himself, and their sons, Conrad, 15, who attends Spartanburg High School, and Holden, 11, who is enrolled at Spartanburg Day School. For the first several weeks of her presidency, Newkirk lived in a student apartment in Wilson Hall. The guys came later with their dogs—Sayde, a golden doodle; Sasha, a rescue pup; and Cookie, a French bulldog/pug puppy—and their lizard, Scruffy. Glenn says he’s excited about moving into a home that hasn’t had children there for some 40 years. “Converse is a place the boys and I can be part of,” says Glenn, who will continue practicing with his Charlotte firm. “UNC Charlotte is a big place, and it’s a great place—Krista has a lot of good friends there—but we lived a long way from campus. We weren’t really in a position to be part of the life of that campus, but here we can be. I think it’s more of a holistic job, it’s something that all of us can be involved in and be part of.” He adds: “There are many things I admire about my wife. She is understated, yet charismatic. She has an enormous capacity for love and compassion. When she decides she’s going to do something, she’s all in. I know I’m lucky for that, but Converse is lucky, too. You can see it in the way she brings herself up to speed on things.”
That’s how she plans to work her way into a job whose previous nine officeholders presided for more than 125 years, collectively. “Right now, I’m listening,” she says. “I have a lot to learn, and so my goal is to spend as much time as I can talking to individuals within the school; talking to alumnae and donors; talking to students, to gather all of those perspectives. I want to know what they think we’re doing well, what they think our opportunities are for improvement, what they want to see me work on, what they don’t want me to touch, and what their advice is.” As Kent says, “You can listen to her life story and know she’s going to roll up her sleeves and get busy. She’s even better than we thought she’d be.” Originally published in The Converse Magazine.