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Jonna Lazarus: MICA's First Lady

Q&A with Jonna Lazarus

Posted 11.01.13 by mica communications

Jonna Lazarus, wife of President Fred Lazarus IV, in the Lazarus family’s Baltimore, Maryland, living room.

It is said that next to every great man there is a great woman (and vice versa). No couple personifies that more than Fred and Jonna Lazarus--life partners and career cheerleaders for each other who have together had a profound
impact on Baltimore, the arts, and education. Juxtapositions visited Jonna at their home for a wide-ranging conversation about her life, her career, her passions, and of course, her marriage to the MICA president.

Juxtapositions: Mrs. Lazarus, thank you for welcoming us into your beautiful home. You've been such an important part of the MICA family, so thank you for letting us get to know you a little better.

Jonna Lazarus: My pleasure.

Juxtapositions: Where are you from?

Jonna Lazarus: I'm from Jamestown, which is in western New York. I graduated from high school there. It was a town of about 40,000-a small city. It was a huge furniture capital at the time. It still has a great proportion of Scandinavians and Italians, with a lot of other ethnicities mixed in now. I felt incredibly lucky for some reason. I had one brother and two parents, a very close family. I think we lived a middle-class life-pretty conservative. I was very involved in high school in all kinds of organizations and things. From the time I was rather young, I was a competitive swimmer, until about 16. That was an important part of my life, as music was an important part, as was art.

Juxtapositions: Did you play an instrument?

Jonna Lazarus: No. I took ballet. I majored in art and French in high school. I went to Rochester Institute of Technology for college. And I majored in art, interior design, and business. I went back to school for landscape architecture many years later. I've been doing what I do now for longer than my original career. (Laughs.)

Juxtapositions: What was your original career?

Jonna Lazarus: I was at Carson Pirie Scott in Chicago. I was Home Furnishings' fashion director, which meant I was in charge of things indoors instead of things outdoors as I am now- windows, model rooms, and general coordination of merchandise within departments, working with buyers in Europe. I didn't start out that way, obviously. I started out as a trainee, and then I was a buyer for a little while. And actually, that's where Fred and I met, through mutual friends in Chicago. I mean, the fact that I met him at all is a total miracle, if you ask me.

Juxtapositions: Can you tell us a little bit of that story?

Jonna Lazarus: I was working in Chicago. I had a wonderful job that took me all over the world, especially Europe and Scandinavia, to develop merchandise. We had friends in Chicago-Fred's friend was in the Peace Corps with him, and his now wife was a friend of mine who I had worked with through Carson Pirie Scott. They kept telling me that there was someone they wanted me to meet, who lived in Washington but came through Chicago a lot. This went on for quite a while. Because I traveled a lot, I could be gone for a very long time. Our paths met at some point, and that was it.

Juxtapositions: Was it dinner or something like that?

Jonna Lazarus: We met at a restaurant. He was really late (I should have known!). I think he was working in Gary, Indiana, so he came from a meeting that went overtime. I mean the pattern is still the same today! (Laughs.)

We had a wonderful courtship, rather exciting, because he was in Washington and I was in Chicago. We saw each other almost three weeks out of the month for a year, because one of us would be traveling one way or the other. If I went to Europe, I would land in Washington instead of Chicago, and then go on to Chicago after the weekend or things like that. So it was fun.

When we met, it was a very mutual thing. We went to the Field Museum, and we spent the whole day there, just walking around looking at exhibits, talking, watching chickens hatch in this exhibit.

Juxtapositions: Wow. And this was the first date.

Jonna Lazarus: Yes, and we just had a great time.

Juxtapositions: And Fred was very persistent afterwards?

Jonna Lazarus: He just works things out, you know? When I think back on it, he just figured out how to make it work. "OK, you know, next weekend, I'm going to be in San Antonio, but I can come back through Chicago and then fly to Washington." Things like that. We dated for about a year before he asked me to marry him.

Juxtapositions: So you met and married Fred, and then you guys moved to Washington, DC?

Jonna Lazarus: Yes. He was with the [Washington] Council for Equal Business Opportunity. And I was basically doing volunteer work and some consulting. I really didn't particularly want to go back to work at the time because the kind of retail work I was involved in was really like being married to your job. At least the way I did it-I was totally married to the job. So it was just time to do something else.

Juxtapositions: When did you decide to study landscape architecture?

Jonna Lazarus: Well, it really wasn't for about eight years before I went back to school. I went to George Washington University. I had always wanted to be an architect. I thought that this landscape architecture sort of wrapped up all kinds of interests of mine-the outdoors, plant materials, design, and working with the land. It just fit.

Juxtapositions: Are you a skier like Fred?

Jonna Lazarus: (Laughs.) Yes, and thank goodness, because the first thing I was asked when I went to Cincinnati to meet Fred's family was, "Well, do you ski?" So I think it was imperative, actually. I've been skiing since I was about three years old.

Juxtapositions: So, at what point did Fred get the opportunity to come to MICA?

Jonna Lazarus: When the first job ended, we took the opportunity to take about a three-month voyage through South America. Fred had been in the Peace Corps in Central America, in Panama, and he'd always wanted to go back and do more of the countries in more depth. It was a great time to do it; we didn't have children. We had a loose itinerary and traveled for three months. It was just fantastic. And when we came back, he was offered the opportunity at the National Endowment for the Arts, where he was special assistant to [Former Chairwoman] Nancy Hanks. I think that also was the beginning of his interest in education and the arts. I mean he had always been interested in the arts...

Juxtapositions: His mom was very active...

Jonna Lazarus: Very active in the arts, yes, and it was a big part of his family. So, it was natural, but I think that was kind of the beginning of the growth of it.

Juxtapositions: What were your feelings about moving to Baltimore from DC?

Jonna Lazarus: Well, when he left the Endowment, we took another, shorter, US trip. It was about a five-week trip. I don't exactly remember how this happened, but when we came back, he was investigating jobs, and one of the things he was looking at was in North Carolina. And I said, "I'm pretty flexible, but this is where I put my foot down!" (Laughs.) I mean, I moved from New York state to Chicago, to, as far as I was concerned, the Deep South [Washington, DC].

I loved living in Washington. I did know Baltimore somewhat. We had a friend over here, and we used to come over and go to the Lexington Market, which we loved. And so here we are-and we're still here.

Juxtapositions: And then you came here, and you had the two children.

Jonna Lazarus: Our daughter was just an infant when he was coming to work at the very beginning.

Juxtapositions: So what has it been like-being first lady of MICA, while having your own business?

Jonna Lazarus: I love being a part of MICA. When you say first lady...I mean it's interesting. I don't necessarily think of myself that way, because although I've been very involved in MICA, I have my own career as well. And Fred has been very, very respectful of my career.

Juxtapositions: What do you like most about your career? Because you're doing mostly landscaping in Baltimore, right?

Jonna Lazarus: Yes. I've done some other work. I've done some work on the Eastern Shore and down on the Rappahannock [a river in eastern Virginia], and I also got to do a garden in Italy when I was on the board of Studio Art Centers International. But most of my work is in the Baltimore area.

Juxtapositions: And what were some of your favorite projects?

Jonna Lazarus: Well, I do both residential and commercial/institutional. I love the project where you're working with an architect from the very beginning, and you're actually helping to site the house, from the ground up as I say, so you're an integral part of the whole planning of the process-how is the house sited, how is it going to be graded, what's it going to look like to take best advantage of the site. Those projects almost always work out beautifully. I have a lot of smaller residential clients that are just a pleasure. They're sort of my staple, in a way, because maybe I've done a major design job and installation for them, and they'll check back in with me once or twice a year and say, "Can we walk through the property and see what we want to add, subtract, or tweak?" That's a joy, it really is. And I love the work I've done with MICA. That has been a fabulous opportunity.

Juxtapositions: So you're doing the landscaping, you're MICA's first lady, and are you doing some volunteer work as well?

Jonna Lazarus: I am. I have been on the Center Stage board for slightly over 20 years, until this year when I resigned at the end of my last three-year term. I am still on the board of Parks & People. I'm a trustee at our church, Brown Memorial, and an Elder. And Isabelle, our dog, and I are part of Pets on Wheels.

Juxtapositions: Now, how do you help Fred balance his personal/professional time? You're well-known for being kind of a grounding force for Fred.

Jonna Lazarus: Really? Well, that's nice to hear, because I don't feel like I have much power in controlling his schedule, to tell you the truth. We're both rather driven people. He just drives himself very hard and schedules himself beyond what anyone should be doing in one day, if you ask me. I think that what he is doing is so important to him, and he loves it so much.

Now that he is coming toward the end of his time at MICA, I think he still has a list of what he wants to complete before he leaves, and so it seems as though things have actually ratcheted up as opposed to cycling down. It's just the opposite of what you would think. And just because of MICA, and because of who Fred is, he's gotten very involved in the community, because he thought that was really important for the school, and very involved in the neighborhood, which he thinks is very important for the school as well. So there's a lot more, in his mind, that's involved with being the president of MICA other than just MICA itself. It's MICA and what's involved around it in the community, and even nationally.

Juxtapositions: Now what about you? How does he support you?

Jonna Lazarus: He's very respectful of what I'm doing, what needs to be accomplished from my point of view. But I think we both feel like we are wearing several hats.

Juxtapositions: Two more questions. What have you enjoyed most about your association with MICA?

Jonna Lazarus: You know, I think I've enjoyed the people that are involved in MICA. I mean, we were so welcomed into the community when we first came here, and many of those people became really good friends. They were so welcoming-opening their homes. And the other thing has really just been watching the school grow. Just as a small example, when you go to somebody's opening or exhibit today, and I think about what it was like 30 years ago, it's just amazing how the work has changed and improved and grown, along with the diversity of the departments in the school, and the possibilities. I think one of the most frustrating things is, I think even in Baltimore, some people don't understand that, yes, MICA is a fine arts college, but these art students actually go to work when they are finished. I mean, they have incredible careers. And they have an incredible academic education.

Juxtapositions: What does post-MICA look like for you guys?

Jonna Lazarus: I'm going to be really careful about what I accept from now on, and I think that I am definitely sort of winding up. I haven't put a deadline on this yet, but I feel as though we want to be able to travel a great deal. We travel very well together, and we've enjoyed the long trips we've taken. And I think that one of the things we look forward to is being able to go to places that we love and being able to spend a larger hunk of time there, and we're looking forward to exploring places that have always been on our list that we haven't been able to do because you need more time. Our children are both now relatively close in the area, and I look forward to having more time to spend with them as well.

Image captions (top to bottom): Jonna Lazarus, wife of President Fred Lazarus IV, in the Lazarus family's Baltimore, Maryland, living room; President Fred Lazarus IV and Jonna Lazarus pause for a photo shoot at their friends' wedding. Photo courtesy Jonna Lazarus; and (left to right) Daughter Anna Lazarus, Jonna Lazarus, son Fred "Fritz" Lazarus V, President Fred Lazarus IV, and the family dog, Finn, in their yellow Volkswagen Beetle. Photo courtesy Jonna Lazarus.