First Lady of Virginia, Lisa
Collis, a leader in public service
courtesy of the Office of the First Lady of Virginia
By Penny Chang and Anne Bromley
Lisa Collis admits that
when she roused fellow students into action at U.Va., the results
were sometimes dubious.
As an intramural captain in single-sex Bonnycastle dormitory in
the mid-70s, she marched determinedly up and down the hall until
she had raised a team for a swim meet early in the year. But when
her team walked into Memorial Gym, primed to compete, they stopped
short: they were the only women there.
“After that,” she concedes, “it was really hard
for me to recruit them for anything.”
Since her husband, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, took office in January
2002, however, Collis — the first first lady of Virginia
not to use her husband’s name — no longer has any
trouble drawing people to events that interest her, especially
causes that benefit children.
Before taking office in January 2002, Warner made his fortune
brokering deals for cellular telephone franchises. In 1984, however,
when Collis met him at a party in Washington, D.C., “he
was not a rich guy,” she recalls. “If he was, he was
hiding it. He lived in a group house with a bunch of guys. He
had a car that didn’t work very often.”
The couple married in 1989 and has three daughters — Madison,
14, Gillian, 12, and Eliza, 9. Collis learned soon after her husband
became governor, she says, to be strict about scheduling public
appearances to preserve family time.
Collis believes her education at the University indirectly prepared
her for the life she now leads. “Perhaps more than at most
universities, at U. Va. the history of the school, its founding,
its traditions are so markedly woven into student life, that it
was there that I first began to really think of myself as a Virginian.”
Her liberal arts education also honed her communication skills:
“I find this role requires a fair amount of writing both
for print and for public speaking. I credit U.Va. for helping
me so much in that regard.”
Collis has taken on leadership roles more as a necessity than
from any desire to be a leader, she says. “Any leadership
skills I might possess, I believe, arise more from a sense of
responsibility, which I acquired in large part from my parents’
As a graduate student at the University of Texas, she traveled
to Guatemala in 1979 and ’80 to study iron deficiency and
nutrition. After graduating with a master’s degree in public
health, Collis worked for the World Bank, where she focused on
food and nutrition issues and on AIDS assistance for Africa from
1985 until ’89.
For more than a decade, she has participated in various efforts
to prevent child abuse, including as a court-appointed special
advocate for Stop Child Abuse Now of Northern Virginia. She and
her husband established the Collis-Warner Foundation, which supports
private and state initiatives to prevent child abuse and to programs
that aid low-income children.
Collis has been recognized for her championship of children. She
was honorary chairwoman of Prevent Child Abuse Virginia and received
the 2003 Commissioner’s Award from the national organization,
Administration on Children and Families, for her leadership, dedication
and accomplishments in the prevention of child abuse and neglect
in Virginia. She also chairs Virginia Action for Healthy Kids,
a task force on child obesity; Women and Girls’ Wellness
Month, held in April; and serves on the Southern Regional Task
Force on Child Care.
A course at U.Va. greatly affected her view of the world close
to home. The class, in juvenile delinquency at the Curry School
of Education, featured a visit to a local juvenile detention center.
“[The kids] told us their stories,” Collis recalls.
“You realized they had gotten in trouble for things your
friends did in high school.” Unlike her friends, though,
these kids got sent to this detention center, where they met hard-core
At that time, Collis was majoring in biology and trying to figure
out what to do with her life. She volunteered through Madison
House, renovating houses for the Charlottesville Housing Improvement
Project and tutoring in local elementary schools, plus changed
beds and bathed patients in a part-time job at the U.Va. Medical
Collis says she loved her time at the University, productive years
even if she did have to scotch plans to become a doctor or an
astronaut. Now she’s helping many children get closer to
realizing unexpected careers like hers.
(A longer version of Chang’s story originally appeared in
Alumni News, winter 2002.)