FEATURES • Fall 2000

by Betsy Rogers

Risa Zwerling, a devoted mother, accomplished business executive, and community volunteer, is the University's new "first lady." Zwerling and Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton were married July 28, 2000.

 

Risa Zwerling has a gift for connecting with people. She has spent her life shaping fundamental links with others––with girlhood friends in Queens, N.Y., with suffering patients in a New York City rehabilitation hospital, with disadvantaged toddlers at St. Louis' Our Little Haven.

In her professional life, as managing director of account support for Magellan Behavioral Health, she helps employers and employees connect with needed services––from mental health programs to dependent care and stress counseling following disasters.

"Risa is a magnet for people," says Gail Campbell, a longtime friend. "She has a passion for life, to understand and know people, to really listen. She is absolutely genuine."

In 1995, Zwerling made a different type of connection. She wrote Mark S. Wrighton, the newly named chancellor-elect at Washington University, and suggested he might like to know someone outside the University community and meet people in the neighborhood.

She sent the letter to the chancellor's office, where it landed in a junk-mail pile. But after Wrighton arrived in St. Louis, he rescued it and called her. Now, five years later, Wrighton and Zwerling were married July 28 at the chancellor's official residence, Harbison House.

As the University's new "first lady," Zwerling hopes to continue helping people make connections. Among her plans and hopes: running a "Homesick Restaurant" to serve occasional meals for students who miss their families and to provide community members another means of access to Wrighton.


"She is a wonderful mentor. She gives you the freedom to learn and grow. She's excellent at making things happen," says Judy DeWoskin, a project manager at Magellen Behavioral Health.

Zwerling, who was born in Brooklyn in 1948 and raised in Queens, received a bachelor's degree in psychology from Barnard College in 1970. She then took a job as a social worker at Bird S. Coler Hospital, on the East River's Welfare Island under the 59th Street Bridge. A rehabilitation hospital, Coler treats patients with chronic conditions arising from drug or alcohol addiction, birth defects, spinal cord injuries, and other causes.

The patients were in charge of the place, Zwerling says. They had established their own culture, and––to work with them successfully––the staff had to adapt. "When you went to work and landed on that island, you became part of them," Zwerling reflects.

From Coler she went to the University of Maryland in Baltimore, where she earned a Master of Social Work degree in 1975, and became a psychiatric social worker at Baltimore's Sinai Hospital. Then, newly married to men's clothing manufacturer Robert Schmidt, she joined Missouri Baptist Hospital in St. Louis.

With the birth of their first daughter, Anna, in 1980, Zwerling became a stay-at-home mom. "I was very wrapped up in being a mother," she notes. A second daughter, Leah, followed 4 1/2 years later.

After Leah's birth, Zwerling enrolled at Washington University's John M. Olin School of Business and earned an MBA in 1989. Divorced in 1987, Zwerling signed with Citicorp Mortgage in St. Louis, soon becoming assistant vice president of direct marketing. She's worked for Magellan and its predecessor firms since 1992.

At Magellan, the nation's largest provider of employee assistance and behavioral health programs, she's responsible for product development and implementation, and manages external vendors that provide some Magellan services.

With this substantial portfolio, Zwerling has made countless connections at Magellan. Judy DeWoskin, a project manager who reports to Zwerling, says, "She is a wonderful mentor. She gives you the freedom to learn and grow. She's excellent at making things happen."

Zwerling also makes things happen volunteering at Our Little Haven, a refuge for drug-exposed and abused children ages 0 to 5. She spends Wednesday evenings connecting with 2-year-olds: "I sit on the floor and let the kids climb all over me."

For 15 years, she has also been active with St. Louis' Central Reform Congregation, which she and her daughters joined because she wanted them to know and cherish their Jewish heritage. She recently joined its board of directors because she greatly values the sense of belonging and cultural identity the family has found there.

Photo Above: The new first family gathers on wedding day: (from left) daughters Leah and Anna Schmidt, Risa Zwerling Wrighton, daughter Rebecca Wrighton, Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton, and son J.J. Wrighton.

 

She has also become a director of the Center of Contemporary Arts, where both her daughters learned to dance.

She hopes to maintain her volunteer commitments, but says she looks forward to being an integral part of the University community. "I would love to use my time and talent to help the University," she says. "I hope always to have my own projects and areas of responsibility."

She anticipates providing the University community another way to connect with the chancellor. "I think I can help make Mark more accessible," she says. "We've all been awed by his intelligence, but he really is such an approachable person. I like to put people at ease. Maybe I can be a little bit of a bridge."

Her daughter, Anna, lists Zwerling's sense of humor high among her many attributes, though Anna also stresses her mother's independence and strength of character. Anna says, "I would like the University to know what a self-made person she is, to appreciate how smart and capable she is."

Of melding her family with Wrighton's (which includes his son, J.J., 22, who graduated from the University in May 2000, and daughter, Rebecca, 19, a sophomore here), Anna says: "Everyone gets along really well. And Mark just makes her so happy. They're a great pair."

The transition certainly will involve adjustments. Zwerling and her daughters plan to part with their University City home slowly, to move "in increments" to Harbison House, where Leah, 15, and a sophomore at Clayton High School, will add a youthful presence. A field hockey player and a dancer with the preprofessional COCAdance Company, Leah will introduce a new rhythm to the household, bringing friends, pizza parties, and more to its stately rooms.

"I'm really excited about it," Leah says. "This is going to be a new adventure for us, a new way of life––not just having a man in the house, but being part of the University."

Leah and Anna, a junior dance and psychology major at Connecticut College, are Zwerling's deepest connections. "My daughters are my true soul mates," she says. "We are close and can spend entire evenings laughing about nonsense. We share clothes and listen to the same music."

Zwerling says both girls look forward to having a stepfather. "Their own father died in September 1995," she explains. "Although they know no one can take their dad's place, they're looking forward to having another parent, and Mark has demonstrated his deep commitment and caring for them in innumerable ways."

And there are other adjustments involved in the move. Zwerling, an avid animal-lover, has three cats and a dog; Wrighton has two older cats. They're looking for good homes for two of her felines.

After Zwerling and Wrighton decided to marry, she talked with Elizabeth "Ibby" Danforth, wife of Chancellor Emeritus William H . Danforth and the University's beloved first lady for 24 years. "I asked her if we could have lunch so she could give me some pointers," Zwerling recalls. "'I want to have lunch,' Ibby said, 'but let me give you the pointers right now: be yourself!'"

Betsy Rogers is a former editor of the University's faculty-staff newspaper, Record.