HOTSEAT- First lady: Betsy Casteen's Carr's Hill adventure

Betsy Casteen

John and Betsy Casteen at a 2005 art opening.

Betsy Foote had no idea what she was getting into when she married John Casteen. "He didn't really tell me," she says, sitting in front of a cozy gas fireplace at Carr's Hill, her home with the president of the University of Virginia, who steps down at the end of July after 20 years in office.

When they wed seven years ago, Betsy Casteen didn't realize she would be living in a literal fishbowl. She's seen students in the garden, people staring into her windows, and before the sunporch got shutters, she'd crouch down to avoid being watched (something she reenacts for a visitor). Not what she expected when studying art history at Boston University.

The native Bostonian considered becoming an architect– "except that I couldn't draw very well," she says. She decided, "I could be a planner."

And so she was, working in New York, Cambridge, and Boston. She took on projects in Massachusetts redeveloping a state mental hospital and turning a military base into a town. And raising two girls– both of whom attended UVA, as did her late husband. She was already acquainted with John Casteen when friends set them up at dinner.

"My children were pretty embarrassed I followed them here," she says. "I think it was hardest for them when I sold my house, and they had to pick out a big room upstairs."

Because Carr's Hill comes furnished, there was no room for her furniture, which went into storage until the first couple bought a weekend getaway in Keswick– only there aren't really a lot of free weekends, especially during football season. 

Betsy Casteen may not be an employee of the University of Virginia, but her husband's work borders on 24/7.  "Certainly, it was a big change for me," she admits. "Women are pretty good about shifting gears. And John and I can work as a team."

She often travels with him but says it's grueling when he's on a three-day, five-city trip.

"I have a hard time keeping up with him," she says. "He gets energized– and he's seven years older than me."

The residence, located at the corner of University Avenue and Rugby Road, works pretty hard too. Carr's Hill hosts nearly 100 events and 15,000 visitors in a year– including the annual reception to which all the first-years are invited. "Good thing I like social things and meeting people," she says.

Moving to the South required another adjustment. She describes meeting the Rector, who asked where she was from. "I said Boston, and he said, 'That's too bad,'" recalls Casteen. "I wasn't as aware of the Civil War in Massachusetts."

She's also learned to live with fraternities as neighbors. "Thursday night is a big party night here," observes Casteen. "I realized John was deaf in one ear. He doesn't even hear it." 

Carr's Hill is the punch line of many pranks. One night a young man tried to break in, thinking it was his fraternity. As a result, Casteen says she's found a certain flexibility. 

"It's a real honor to live in this house," she says. "There isn't a prettier place. I walk the dog on the Lawn every morning."

Last year was the house's centennial, and she worked on a book about the 1909 mansion. Casteen shows a visitor the new wallpaper she chose for the dining room, the spot where the TV is hidden, and the crystal candle glass she donated to the historic house.

One other thing she's discovered about Carr's Hill: It's perfect for weddings. She first realized that in 2003 at her own wedding– and again last summer, when both of her daughters got married there. 

The Casteens' time at Carr's Hill is winding down, and new doors are opening, as they say.

"We did buy a house in Maine and are going to spend summers there," says Casteen. "We will be able to pick up and go." And Charlottesville will remain home, albeit in Keswick. Albeit with more privacy.

Age: 59

Why here? My husband John, is the president of UVA.

What's worst about living here? Trying to decide which restaurant to go to next.

Favorite hangout? The Lawn

Most overrated virtue? I can't really think of one.

People would be surprised to know: My maiden name was Elizabeth Taylor.

What would you change about yourself? Not buy as many shoes.

Proudest accomplishment? Celebration of the 100th anniversary of Carr's Hill and overseeing the creation of a book about its first 100 years.

People find most annoying about you: I make puns about everything.

Whom do you admire? Thomas Jefferson

Favorite book? The book I am reading now– Spooner by Pete Dexter.

Subject that causes you to rant? Failure of government and people to understand the importance of supporting education.

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Blackberry

Biggest 21st-century creep out? "Blackberry thumb" (arthritis caused by use of a Blackberry)

What do you drive? SUV

In your car CD player right now: Paul McCartney

Next journey? Sicily

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Sneaking out of my house when I was 13.

Regret: Wasting time on unimportant things.

Favorite comfort food: Warm chocolate chip cookies on a snowy day.

Always in your refrigerator: Blueberries

Must-see TV: CSI

Describe a perfect day. A July day on horseback in Montana.

Walter Mitty fantasy: To plan the perfect city.

Who'd play you in the movie? Candace Bergen

Most embarrassing moment? Retrieving our dog from a neighboring fraternity in my bathrobe.

Best advice you ever got? "Don't sweat the small stuff"

Favorite bumper sticker?  "Virginia is for Lovers"