By Torie Foster | Photos by Sean Cassidy & Griffin Harrington
He’s a singer, she plays piano, and their daughter’s involved in her 14th stage production. During a tour of their home, the JMU presidential family discusses their personal interests and family history. Together, they hope to model a tight-knit community on campus.
President Jon Alger and his wife were friends for years after they met through the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., in 1989. It wasn’t until December 1994 during a trip with some friends to Deep Creek Lake in Maryland that the romance began.
“We were skiing and kind of got the twinkle in the eye,” Mary Ann said. “I was really hoping Jon would ask me out.”
January came and Jon still hadn’t asked. After Mary Ann stayed at a friend’s goose-hunting lodge for a weekend on the Eastern Shore in Maryland, she was driving home with two dead geese the host had given her in her trunk — with no idea what to do with them.
“I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll call Jon Alger and have him come over for dinner,’ ” she said. “I knew he was going to ask me out any minute, so I decided just to make it happen.”
When he agreed, Mary Ann called a friend who worked at the Watergate Hotel to figure out how to prepare the geese. After the dinner — a meal Jon now deems “OK” — the two started dating.
He proposed almost two years later on Dec. 3, 1996: Mary Ann’s birthday. Jon picked her up in a limo.
“She kind of had a clue,” Jon said, chuckling.
Before they went to dinner, Jon, who used to sing with an internationally touring choral group, got down on one knee, sang Steven Curtis Chapman’s “I Will Be Here” and proposed to Mary Ann. After she said yes, they went to the Cheesecake Factory, one of their favorite restaurants, in Friendship Heights in the Maryland/D.C. area.
“I wanted to get the proposal out of the way first so we could go to the Cheesecake Factory and enjoy ourselves,” Jon said jokingly.
The restaurant would later cater their wedding dessert in May 1997. The newlyweds then moved to Arlington.
Their daughter Eleanor was born in 1998, and in 2000, the family moved to Ann Arbor when Jon received the assistant general counsel position at the University of Michigan. Jon later became vice president and general counsel at Rutgers in New Jersey.
Coming to JMU, this is the first time Mary Ann hasn’t had a paid position since she was about 12. Mary Ann, who grew up in Florida, double majored in international business and Spanish at Auburn University.
After graduation, she received a Master of Business Administration at the University of Miami with a concentration in international finance. Throughout her life, she’s worked in several positions, including banking as well as consultation for start-up companies. She’s also had her own consultation practice.
Now, she spends about 20-30 hours a week volunteering on campus. One activity she’s involved in is working to connect the College of Business, Center for Entrepreneurship, the Office of Technology Transfer and the Shenandoah Valley Small Business Development Center.
“I’m still developing what I want to do and what my role at the university might be,” she said. “That’s going to be an ongoing process.”
She also makes time for Eleanor’s school, coordinating the parent volunteers for the Skyline Middle School musical “Alice in Wonderland.” Eleanor, 13, plays the Queen of Hearts, which she will perform on her 14th birthday on Nov. 17.
“I can’t think of a better way to spend my birthday,” said Eleanor, who’s been involved in 14 productions now.
The eighth-grader takes after her musical father. As a member of the Shenandoah Valley Children’s Choir, a group of grades 3-12, she will perform internationally. Eleanor, who has been singing in church and school choirs for most of her life, was in her first stage production in fourth grade.
“There’s just something about words that I really love, whether I’m speaking them or reading them or writing them,” Eleanor said.
She says she taught herself to read at age 4 and also hopes to publish a book before she finishes high school. She’s already written two and is working on a third, although they’re not yet published. Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry’s “Bridge to Neverland” ranks as one of her favorite books, though she also loves classics like “Little Women” and “Little House on the Prairie.”
“She’s always got either a book or a pen or both everywhere we go,” said her father, who added that the two read together almost every night.
The Andrew Lloyd Webber revue (one of her favorite composers) had Eleanor excited to visit the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts earlier this month. Music and artistry is a passion of the whole family. Mary Ann, who has played piano since she was 3, tries to make time to play each week — though she’s not playing the two-to-four hours a day she used to.
“For all my life, I’ve loved words and music,” Eleanor said. “And that definitely comes as an influence from them because both my parents are musicians. I’d be the odd one out if I wasn’t involved in music.”
It’s a bit early for Eleanor to decide whether she’ll one day enroll at JMU, but she’s thinking about it.
Until then, being a presidential family is a constant job for all of them. All three of the Algers attend JMU events — sports games, concerts, plays and club functions — almost every night. Even Eleanor stays present on campus, introducing a women’s swim and dive scrimmage in early October and looking forward to attending women’s basketball games.
“The whole family does participate,” Jon said. “When you have a job like this, 24/7, you’re always at events — nights and weekends and all the time.”
While they try to have family dinners a few times a week, it’s a challenge. There’s no such thing as a typical night for the Algers, and it’s rare that Jon, who leaves by 7:30 a.m. for work every day, gets home before dark. But it’s a lifestyle they value.
“As a family, we really try to send that signal to the university that we very much want to be a part of the community,” Jon said.
Eleanor, who says she’s a “people person,” especially wants to connect with students.
“I really hope people take that step and not treat us like a family on a pedestal,” Eleanor said, “but really treat us like they’re a part of our family, too.”