Head of the Class

updated 02/05/2001 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/05/2001 01:00AM

While her siblings toiled beneath the searing East Texas sun, the little girl kept her head buried in books. "My sisters and brothers were picking cotton all day, and I was too young," says Ruth Simmons, the last of 12 children. "I was a child who didn't carry my load." Not in the field, perhaps, but she definitely held her own in the classroom. "I was a terrible bookworm," says Simmons–then Ruth Stubblefield–whose sharecropper parents, Fannie and Isaac, didn't always understand their daughter but taught her a work ethic. "They worked from sunup to late evening, and my mother took in ironing," says Simmons. "I was so moved as a child when she had to work all day to earn enough money for a pair of shoes for me."

Simmons, 55, has rewarded her family's sacrifices (her mother died when she was 15, her father in 1985) by her own storybook success, rising from the poverty of rural Grapeland, Texas, to high school salutatorian in Houston and on to a Ph.D. at Harvard. "At her high school commencement she started to cry because her mother wasn't there," remembers her onetime English and drama teacher Vernell Lillie, Simmons's mentor then. "We all rallied around her, and what we said to her was 'You can move far beyond this world'–which was the Fifth Ward in Houston."

And move she did. Last November she was named 18th president of Brown University in Providence, thereby becoming the first African-American to head an Ivy League school. "I've been on an emotional roller coaster," says Simmons, who starts at Brown in July yet finds it difficult to be leaving Smith College in Northampton, Mass., where in a five-year presidency she added an engineering department–a first for a women's college–and nearly doubled its endowment to $900 million. "Their gain is our loss," says Donald Baumer, 50, a professor of government, who was on the search committee that in 1995 brought Simmons to Smith from Princeton, where she had been the vice provost. "She is a very professional woman. People melt in front of her smile."

Whether by fist or velvet glove, Simmons has always gotten things done. "She was very bossy," remembers sister Marie Raymond, 57, an aspiring writer who, along with her twin, Azella, was closest to Simmons. "That came from the security that she was the youngest and the favorite of our father." Simmons admits she played up being Daddy's little girl: "I had a smart mouth, and I thought I was smarter than everybody else."

But intelligence and a quick wit were of little comfort in 1961, when her mother died. "It turned me upside down," says Simmons, who came to rely on Vernell Lillie as a surrogate mother. "Basically what we did was love her," says Lillie, 69, now an associate professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

Two scholarships, which Simmons used to attend Dillard University in New Orleans, where she had hoped to study theater, were her initial ticket out. "I was quite a good actress" in high school, she says. "I'm remembered for my Antigone and my role [as Laura] in The Glass Menagerie." At Dillard, Ruth met Norbert Simmons, a cocky Tulane University student, when their roommates began dating. "When I first met him, I found him annoying. He was full of himself," she recalls. But he grew on her, and years later, spending the Fourth of July holiday in 1968 with her family in Houston, they decided to marry. "Literally, we were passing the courthouse and I said, 'Do you want to get married?' " remembers Norbert, 53, a New Orleans investment banker. "It was like, 'Yeah, sure.' At the ceremony, she said she could handle the love-and-honor stuff, but not the obey. The word never came out of her mouth."

Convincing Ruth's family that they had quietly wed was a tough sell. "They would not believe we got married," says Norbert, explaining that the family thought they were using it as an excuse to sleep in the same room. "So we spent our wedding night in separate bedrooms." Despite the inauspicious start, both agree that the marriage was wonderful for a long time. "It was a lot of fun," says Ruth, who got her doctorate in romance languages (she speaks French and Spanish) from Harvard the same year their first child, son Khari, now 27 and a composer and bassist in Atlanta, was born. But after 15 years, "the interests and focus were not the same," says Norbert. They split in 1983, with Ruth taking their two children to Princeton; daughter Maya, 24, still lives with her mother.

At Princeton, while forging a reputation as a hugely successful administrator and a caring mentor and, later, as associate dean of the faculty, Simmons showed her resourcefulness when she snagged future Nobel laureate and good friend Toni Morrison for the university in 1987. Despite Morrison's reputation, Princeton wanted to see a résumé. "I wasn't sending any," says Morrison. So, behind Morrison's back–and the university's–Simmons assembled one for her. "I was just doing what was necessary to get Toni there," she says. Morrison, who didn't learn about the intervention until recently, says, "I thought it was a hoot."

For all her achievements, Simmons admits her career has taken a toll on her private life. "Women have more complicated lives. I have children," she says. "Trying to balance everything is difficult. You ask yourself, 'Can I have a balanced life? How can I have it all?' I think I can."

To that end, the unattached Simmons, whose friends are constantly trying to fix her up, is intent on finding someone to love and building a lasting relationship. "I still expect to get married again," she says. Yet she worries that the more she advances the harder it will be to find the right man. "I want that one perfect person," says Simmons, who adds that the last time she was named president of a college she "got all these letters–offers from men in prison."

Preparing for her new role at Brown, Simmons finds little time for her art museum and theater outings and her lingering fantasy about being Tina Turner. "My fantasy has something to do with my dream of being a performer, which I gave up to study French," she says. "I also have a sober and serious image. However, there is a little bit of mischief in me, the desire to be an exhibitionist."

On top of that, there are the desires of her children. "My son would like me to bake him cookies and answer the phone for him," she says jokingly. "They would rather have me as Mom than the president of Brown."

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