Dynamic doer

Nancy Mulheren in the second-floor store of The Swinging Bridge, her restaurant in Paint Bank, Va.

Nancy Mulheren in the second-floor store of The Swinging Bridge, her restaurant in Paint Bank, Va.

From the Roanoke College Magazine, Issue Two, 2012. View the entire Roanoke Magazine online.

The eclectic Nancy Mulheren defies categorizing. She wrangles buffalo. She negotiates multimillion-dollar deals. She is tireless and a self-admitted perfectionist. She throws impromptu dance parties with her children and energizes herself with Broadway show tunes. A member of the Roanoke College Board of Trustees since 1985, Mulheren, along with her late husband, John, also is one of the College's champions, helping raise its vision and pave its path.

Life was very ordinary, Nancy Baird Mulheren '72 insists, until she came to Roanoke College and met the charismatic John Mulheren '71. Then it took an extraordinary twist, enabling her to raise seven children while helping shape three diverse communities with seemingly limitless energy, imagination and generosity.

"Nancy is catalytic. Something positive is going to happen if she gets engaged," says Roanoke College President Michael Maxey. "She's a very hands-on helper who happens to have the resources to help on a grand scale."

Although Nancy was born in New Jersey, she lived in Durham, N.C., from infancy until age 14.  Her family moved to Long Island in the middle of her eighth-grade year, a fairly traumatic event for a shy teenager. "I didn't really fit in with any of the cliques," she says, so she sought friendship with other transplants and took refuge in dance classes.

While most of her high school classmates headed to college in the Northeast, Nancy knew she wanted to head back South. A classmate who'd visited his sister, Candace Martin '69, at Roanoke gave the College rave reviews - particularly the social life - and Nancy was hooked.

Changing times

When Nancy started at Roanoke, girls could only wear skirts unless granted "slack permission." Men weren't allowed in the women's dormitories and a live-in dorm mother enforced the rules. Freshmen received demerits for not making their beds and had to be in by 10 p.m. on weeknights. "Between fall 1968 and spring 1972, the whole world changed," says Leslie Nunnally Christopher '72, one of Nancy's suitemates. "It was the fastest four years of social change, both on campus and in the U.S."

In the first semester of freshman year, her roommate Priscilla Mohan Prosser '72, introduced Nancy to her physics lab partner, sophomore John Mulheren as he passed by Bartlett Hall. Known on campus as "Slick," John was a character who had already developed a reputation as a world-class prankster. Three months later, Slick walked up to Nancy on a Friday evening and asked her out.

Friends were puzzled by the attraction between the two.  "I was a very quiet, shy, only child," Nancy says. "People asked me, 'Why did you go out with Slick?' and I said, 'Gosh, I was afraid to say no.' "

Kathy Harkness '72, a Phi Mu sister of Nancy's and current vice chair of the Board of Trustees, recalls, "They were a pretty unique couple. Nancy was extroverted and friendly, but she didn't attract attention to herself. John was the big-figure person. He was 'out there.' "

Harkness describes the pair as "very attuned to each other. She was his best friend and confidant; they were an inseparable couple at school. It was always Slick and Nancy - you knew they'd be together."

John graduated in 1971 and headed to New York City. Nancy graduated a semester early and took a job selling flight insurance at John F. Kennedy International Airport. At the end of August, "Out of the blue, John said, 'Marry me this weekend or I will never go out with you again,' " Nancy recalls. Her parents were out of town, and she didn't want to deprive them of seeing their only child get married. John agreed to wait another week and they married Sept. 10, 1972.

Giving back
By the age of only 25, John Mulheren, a self-taught trader, astounded Wall Street by rising to managing partner at Merrill Lynch. Soon after, he and Nancy began giving back to their alma mater on an epic scale. One of their first large donations was in honor of associate professor and track coach Homer Bast. The following year, they contributed in honor of Donald Sutton Sr. '54, then dean of students, beginning a practice of making contributions to pay tribute to faculty and staff who influenced their lives at Roanoke.

As John's fame and success in the trading world grew, so did the Mulherens' donations. They were large sponsors of the Bast Center in 1982 and offered a challenge grant of $930,000 for renovation of the oldest part of Sections dormitory the next year.

In 2000, John and Nancy gathered with others as then-President David Gring announced a $5 million gift from Tristam and Ruth Colket.

"Dr. Gring said something like, 'A gift of this magnitude is not likely to happen again,' and I thought, 'Uh-oh.' I knew what was coming," Nancy says. Sure enough, her husband jumped to his feet, saying, "Dr. Gring, I hate to make a liar out of you, but here's another $5 million."

"None of John's gifts were ever, ever planned," Nancy says. "If he got an idea, there was no stopping him."

A growing family
As an only child, Nancy says she always wanted to have a big family. "John came from a large Irish Catholic family. It was always lively and rowdy when his family gathered, and we wanted that for ourselves," she says.

The couple began adopting infants, adding five children to the family in a six-year span. After an eight-year gap while John struggled to control his bipolar disorder and battled allegations of securities fraud (he was completely exonerated), the couple adopted two more children.

"Nancy's an incredible mother," says Judy Hall '69, a member of the Roanoke College Board of Trustees. "She does all the 'mom' activities - Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, reading stories - while running a business full time. She could have become a society maven but that has no appeal to her."

John Mulheren's wealth and legal woes gave him a very high profile in their hometown of Rumson, N.J., - he commuted to work in Manhattan by helicopter - but the couple sought to provide a "normal" upbringing for their children. Lisa Wilson, a close friend who lives in New Jersey, notes that while the children could have been handed everything, they always worked and had summer jobs.

Although the family has always maintained an apartment in Manhattan, Nancy says the children spent much of their time in the tiny town of Paint Bank, Va., where the Mulherens bought land in 1986. "The children grew up riding horses, swimming, hunting, fishing, four-wheeling and hiking. It kept us all grounded," Nancy says.

Emerging from the shadows
In December of 2003, Judy Hall and Nancy were both on a committee to find a replacement for the retiring Dr. Gring. It was just before Christmas and the two had met in D.C. Nancy was flying back on her plane, and Hall was taking the shuttle from what was then National Airport. "Christmas is a big deal for Nancy, and she was full of plans," Hall says. "I got the call the next day that John had died."

John, 54, suffered a seizure and went into cardiac arrest, collapsing at the family home.

John's funeral was large and completely unconventional, just like him. The family wore bright Christmas sweaters; some attendees wore costumes and Santa rode in on a fire truck. Iconic rocker Bruce Springsteen, a longtime friend of the Mulherens, gave a eulogy and sang "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." Friends say it was exactly as John would have wanted it.

"Nancy meets adversity with humor," Leslie Christopher says. "She copes with things by staying very busy."

Lisa Wilson says Nancy "never dwelled on John's death. She had to keep going for those kids. After John passed, she emerged as the decision-maker. No one had even realized how much she was doing; they assumed it was all John."

Christopher agrees, saying, "John's personality was so large that she stayed more behind the scenes."

One of Nancy's first steps after John's death was to establish the JAM Anonymous Foundation, named for his initials, so that his generosity during life could continue after his death.

Digging in
John had been appointed to the Roanoke College Board of Trustees in 1980, but according to Nancy, "Sitting in board meetings was just not a good fit with his bipolar disorder."

Nancy replaced her husband on the board in 1985 and quickly demonstrated her willingness, quite literally, to roll up her sleeves and work. She has fostered, promoted and encouraged the College to take care of its grounds, and "has made it the beautiful place it is today," Kathy Harkness says.

Maxey also credits Nancy with helping transform the campus. "You'd think she is master's level, at least, in landscape architecture. She has a remarkable perceptiveness about what needs to be done. Her projects have a people component - low walls designed for people to sit on, plantings that showcase a certain view."

Her plans have included small projects such as placing rocking chairs at the back of the Colket Center to pushing for the renovation of dorms. Another ongoing project is to replace and/or repaint the benches, lampposts and trash receptacles campus-wide to give them a uniform look.

The fruits of Nancy's labor have garnered national attention, with the Princeton Review's 2012 "Best Colleges" guidebook naming Roanoke College the 18th most beautiful campus in the United States. However, Nancy, the relentless perfectionist, says she won't be content until the College makes it into the Top 10.

She frequently shows up on campus in jeans, tackling landscaping projects herself. Masons working on the refurbishment of the Olin Hall courtyard watched with bemusement as Nancy endured a photo shoot in February. "If y'all weren't here, she'd be down on her hands and knees, laying these stones herself," one worker said.

Several board members recall being in a meeting where a student representative said the library was in dire need of comfortable couches and cozy chairs. Inspired by the students' needs and eager to improve their environment, Nancy gathered with three other female trustees, Harkness recalls. "She said, 'It'll take months if we have to go through the whole process of voting and budgeting. Let's just go take care of it now.' "

They headed out to shop, funding the project out of their own pockets, and completed it in a matter of days.

If the project makes sense for the College and she can help, Nancy removes the barriers. "She has a sense of urgency to get things done," Maxey says. "She's not a bull, and she's flexible, but when she's on a mission, she is very focused and directed."

Nancy cares deeply for Roanoke. It is a place that gave her a sense of self, "of just knowing that I could stand on my own two feet and do things for myself," she says. "I think in a way it's having the opportunity to be on your own. To me, that's what college is about."

"My whole philosophy of college is that it is the halfway house to life. It's everything - it's the people, the teachers, faculty staff, administration. It's always been to us, an extension of family."

Nancy, who is a member of the steering committee for the upcoming capital campaign, encourages alumni to give back to Roanoke.

"John and I reconnected with the College when we got involved in the renovation of the student center in 1977," she says. "It's tremendously rewarding to help shape the school for future students. Much progress has been made, but there's much more to be done."

Resurrecting a town
Roanoke College is not the only community to benefit from Nancy's vision and energy. In the 1980s, the Mulherens purchased a farm in Craig County, Va. John had learned about Paint Bank, a tiny, former railroad town in Craig County, from Don Sutton, who owned property there.

The couple bought a former farm in the Paint Bank area that was being used as a hunt camp and started buying additional parcels. "Then we started buying the town," Nancy explains.

At the time, Paint Bank had no place to buy gas or groceries. So the Mulherens, keen on preserving history, purchased and began renovating a former general store, with plans to add a massive addition for what would become The Swinging Bridge restaurant. After John's death, Nancy hired a hunting and fishing guide, Josh Duncan, to establish Potts Creek Outfitters on 800 acres the Mulherens owned in West Virginia. The business offers hunting and fishing enthusiasts private vacation packages, including whitetail bow hunting, Eastern gobbler hunting, fly fishing for rainbow trout, float trips on nearby rivers, and fly fishing club memberships.

Some ventures stemmed from John's whims and his desire to keep busy. John was enamored with buffalo and the old West, so they bought some buffalo, Nancy says. The herd of massive beasts draws many curious onlookers - and fine diners - to the remote area. The Swinging Bridge menu features buffalo items such as burgers and steaks; the general store sells buffalo meat.

John and Nancy Mulheren have bought, restored and/or converted many Paint Bank landmarks or historic treasures. They bought the former train station and converted it into a lodge for hunters. They bought and converted an old caboose into a quaint guest room. They built a three-bedroom log cabin on Potts Creek, just for lodging, and converted the railroad Section Foreman's House and a railroad company house into additional lodging. Tingler's Mill, built in 1863 for grinding corn and wheat, has been partially restored as primarily a decorative fixture. And Nancy has her sights set on resurrecting the former Lemon Hotel.

In the early days, locals began calling the town "Yankee Bank," a derisive reference to the Mulherens' Northern roots. "People were afraid it was going to become commercialized," says general manager Mikell Ellison. "Once they saw that the Mulherens were intent on preserving history, the negative comments stopped. Nancy has made it possible for the town to come back to life."

The various endeavors in Paint Bank employ about 40 people, with more added in the summertime, but Nancy's goal isn't to make money. "That's not the point. I'd be happy just to break even," she says. "I thought this little town deserved to be saved."

Ellison's only complaint is that she finds it difficult to keep up with Nancy. "She comes into town and wears us out. She puts on Broadway show tunes and works around the clock. She thinks nothing of driving over the mountain to Walmart at 2 a.m."

Nancy's generosity and compassion have become legendary in Paint Bank. When Nancy heard that an employee's home burned, she packed a horse trailer with supplies, drove down from New Jersey and completely outfitted a new home in four days. "Furniture, clothing, linens, kitchen items, appliances... everything," Ellison says. "I don't think she even slept."

Nancy's hands-on attitude encompasses all manner of tasks, even ones that might deter the squeamish. "Did she tell you she collects road kill?" whispers an employee. Nancy laughs and says she has indeed stopped to retrieve carcasses such as a fawn, loading it into the back of her SUV and taking it to a taxidermist for stuffing and mounting.

It makes perfect sense to Nancy. "It's illegal to hunt them, but I wanted them for the store's wildlife display" housed in the upper level of the restaurant, she says.

New Jersey Nancy

As in Paint Bank, Nancy has acquired a fairy godmother reputation in Rumson, N.J., and the surrounding communities. Churches, synagogues, struggling businesses, families on hard times, schools and fire departments are among the hundreds of recipients of her generosity.

"The Mulherens quietly write checks, not mentioning it or taking credit," Lisa Wilson says. "Nancy helps some large organizations and many, many small ones. And she has taught the children to do the same."

Although Nancy has a soft heart, she is no pushover. "She also will practice tough love. She wants people to take responsibility for themselves," Wilson says. "She's willing to give her time and energy to people who need it and who are willing to work. She changes people's lives."

Yet, according to Judy Hall, Nancy carefully dodges the spotlight. "The philanthropic things she does, most of us will never know about. Most of her giving is done quietly and anonymously."

Nancy serves on the board of Count Basie Theatre in nearby Red Bank, where John grew up. Renovating the facility was one of John's goals and Nancy continues supporting the project. She also serves on the board and is a generous contributor to Riverview Medical Center, where her husband was taken after his heart attack. Nancy also is an active supporter of Shore Clubhouse, a Red Bank organization that creates opportunities for people with mental illness.

Another pet project is helping with "Stately Homes by the Sea" Designer Show House fundraisers for the Visiting Nurse Association Health Group. In 1996, the Mulherens purchased a 30-acre estate to keep its historic mansion from being razed to make way for development. In 2007, Nancy donated use of the house for the association's fundraising event, which netted a record-setting $500,000.

A second Designer Show House followed in 2009 in another old mansion that Nancy purchased for the sake of preservation. Again, the event raised $500,000.

"She's there cleaning the toilets, climbing ladders to straighten things, picking up sticks and leaves. She doesn't send others to do it; she's a worker bee," Wilson says.

Much of Nancy's generosity is motivated by the sheer joy of entertaining others. On the Fourth of July, the Mulherens stage a huge celebration at Chapel Beach Club, a family business that is managed by son Alexander "Sandy" Mulheren '02, also known as "The Grand Pooh Bah." The event features fireworks and a live orchestra.

"She has more fun throwing parties for the kids. They do these bingo games and she's the caller. The kids get amazing prizes like surfboards, iPads and Wii games," Wilson says.

The club sponsors special activities such as a Kid's Day, with water slides, face-painting, inflatable rides on the beach and a magician - and regular Movie Nights on the beach. A sleepover on the beach, with pitched tents and a big teepee, is held one night each year, a tradition started by John.

Nancy says she can't imagine not supporting the community and feels very fortunate to be able to help. "We learned to be generous from John. That's his legacy."

It will be Nancy's as well.

- Alison Weaver