Driving Home a Point

updated 05/10/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/10/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

OKAY, MY SISTERS, YOU ARE HEREBY authorized to pig out!" With that command, Johnnetta B. Cole brandishes a box of Girl Scout cookies at a group of friends and colleagues clustered around her kitchen counter. It's a bitterly cold Saturday morning, and Cole, whose work overalls are streaked with Georgia clay, is taking a breather inside her house at Atlanta's Spelman College. She had just been across town, offering a hand to members of local women's groups building a house for a single mother and her children as part of Habitat for Humanity, the low-income house-construction project whose best-known supporter is Jimmy Carter. "My mother had this sign in her kitchen with this hokey saying: 'No matter where I serve my guests/ They seem to like my kitchen best,' " says Cole. "Look at us, gang! Here we are in this big 27-room house, and where are we? Some things don't change."

Those "things" include the energy that fires Cole's life. The first black woman president of Spelman College, Cole, 56, has approached her career with a sense of mission—from her work as an anthropologist in Liberia to teaching at New York City's Hunter College and at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. More recently she chaired the arts and education group of Clinton's transition team. "Sister Pres," as she's known around Spelman—an all-female, predominantly black institution—is also the author of Conversations (Doubleday), part autobiography, part treatise on racism and sexism, dedicated to her friends and Spelman benefactors Bill and Camille Cosby. Says Cole: "Since I can't do fieldwork anymore, I needed another way to keep the intellectual juices going."

Cole's enthusiasm even withstood what seemed to be a concerted effort to undermine it last December. When rumors circulated in Washington that Cole was being considered for a Cabinet post, stories appeared in Forward, a Jewish weekly, and other conservative publications implying that she was pro-Communist and anti-Israel because of her alleged involvement with some left-wing groups, including the U.S. Peace Council. Cole denies belonging to any such groups. She was a member of the NAACR, the Urban League and at one time worked with the Venceremos Brigade, which built houses and cut sugarcane in Cuba. "Nothing like this had ever been said about me before," says Cole. "It's straight McCarthyism." Cole adds that she was never in the running, but returned to Spelman after her six-week stint in Washington bruised nonetheless. "I'm not saying that I'm not hurt by it," she says. "But the ultimate victory for people who really want to mess with you is to divert you from serious work. And I have serious work to do."

Part of that work involves urging black women to study their own histories—as she herself does in Conversations—and take pride in them. Cole was raised in Jacksonville, Fla., where her great-grandfather cofounded the first insurance company in the state. Her father, John Betsch Sr., was an executive in the firm, and her mother, Mary Frances, joined the family business as vice president and treasurer. Johnnetta was the second of three children (sister Marvyne, 58, is an environmentalist in Florida and John Jr., 48, is a Paris-based jazz percussionist) and something of a precocious student. She entered Fisk University in Nashville at age 15, then transferred to Oberlin College in Ohio.

In 1960, her anthropological field-work took her and her new husband, economist Robert Cole, to Liberia. She and Robert, who is white, spent two years there before returning to the U.S. and raising children (David, 30, a jazz drummer; Aaron, 27, an English teacher in Japan; and Ethan Che, 22, a senior at Morehouse College in Atlanta). But strains in the relationship, which she says developed from her more rapid career advancement, led to divorce in 1982. In 1987 Cole was reacquainted with a childhood friend, Art Robinson. An administrator at Atlanta's Centers for Disease Control, Robinson, 56, says, "I was at my cousin's house when she asked if I knew that my old buddy Johnnetta had become president of Spelman. So I called and asked if she still liked jazz. And that's how it started." They married the following year.

Much to her regret, Cole can't find enough time these days to enjoy jazz or her other love, cooking. ("There's very little else that has that magical combination of being very expressive of our creativity and originality and is just so absolutely needed," she says. "It's my way of having a love affair with the peoples of the world.")

Her students at Spelman come first. In a flash, she swaps her overalls for a tailored pantsuit and heads to a family-weekend event. Famous for her open-arms policy, Sister Pres hugs everyone in sight. Then she returns home to prepare for a catered dinner party; her guest list includes actor Danny Glover, whose 17-year-old daughter, Mandisa, will attend Spelman next year. If Cole has her way, Spelman will provide not only first-rate schooling but inspiration for life. "I don't want to be schmaltzy," she says, "but if we can figure out how to genuinely educate these African-American women, not just here but as they move from this place to their rightful places in society, then we have done a lot."

MARILYN ACHIRON
GAIL WESCOTT in Atlanta and LINDA KRAMER in Washington

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