Southern hospitality

Moments after being welcomed into a classically elegant home on a quiet rivertown street, you find yourself with a glass of peach iced tea in your hand.

Served in a glass goblet, it was selected from a table also hosting lemon cookies, shortbread and fresh flowers, set on antique linen.

This charming example of hospitality comes courtesy of the home’s gracious – and vivacious – new occupants, Timothy and Lee Nicholson Hall.

“You don’t come to a Southerner’s house without getting fed,” says Lee, with one of countless laughs that will punctuate a visit on recent sunny morning.

WAG has stopped by to check in with Westchester academia’s newest power couple. The husband-and-wife team that served as president and “first lady” of Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., joined Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry in May in the same capacity, their home just steps off campus.

Despite finishing touches still being made to the décor, there is a clear warmth in the traditional surroundings, from the way Tim’s study – a cozy, dark-wood retreat filled with books – is enlivened by his own artwork to the Broadway sheet music perched on the foyer piano.

“We love Broadway,” Lee says.

While a move to New York was not a longtime goal, it has already proved exciting.

As Lee says, “We like change. It’s fun.”

MR. PRESIDENT

President Hall – “call me Tim” – is a man of the students, which he has served in various capacities over the past 25 years, first at the University of Mississippi then at Austin Peay starting in 2007.

After six years in Tennessee, Tim felt he had accomplished much. Indeed, the school’s innovative approach was recognized by both President Barack Obama and Bill Gates.

“I was kind of at a high point,” he says, and that made him consider a new challenge. “We started looking at other alternatives.”

And Mercy College seemed to fit the bill on many levels.

“It’s a different kind of environment,” Tim says. “We were in a place where the college, the university was the second largest employer. … Here, things are more dispersed.”

Already, though, Lee says they have felt at home.

“What I found is people are lovely.”

And living so close to campus is ideal.

“I like being in the thick of things,” Tim says.

With the school year kicking into high gear, Tim has begun his now-familiar routine – supplementing his days with countless campus events, from sports to academics to the arts.

“I can’t keep up with him,” Lee says. “He goes to virtually everything.”

But, the couple says, visibility and accessibility build lasting connections. They want students to see them eating in the cafeteria or have them over to the president’s house.

Lee has always been an integral part of Tim’s academic career, adding a depth to that connection with students.

Tim shares how Lee would host female athletes at Austin Peay, “getting to know the players and have these conversations.” He seems bemused that topics would not only touch on coursework but also relationships.

While Lee hopes to recreate such a strong involvement with Mercy, she says the couple wants to reach beyond campus.

“We really want to be a part of the community,” Lee says.

AT MERCY

Tim is committed to his work, where mentoring programs are in place to encourage students to earn their degrees rather than let “life” get in the way.

“We all know that we need more college graduates for the economy to go the way it has to go,” Tim says. “Mercy occupies very, very important ground.”

And, he adds, his role goes beyond the academics.

“I don’t think I even understood this before I became president, but a president just has the opportunity to pay attention to people… That means a lot.”

Humble, Tim stresses it’s not about him but simply the idea of having someone in a powerful position reaching out to others, encouraging their efforts.

“I have the best job in the world,” Tim says.

As the couple moves to a lovely seating area just outside the house, a visitor can tell the garden escape, complete with wicker furniture, gets a lot of use.

“A Southern woman never gets rid of her wicker until the paint can’t hold it together anymore,” Lee says with another laugh.

“Or disposes of a piece of lace,” Tim chimes in, reflecting on their travels. “We’ve collected in England, Scotland…”

EARLY DAYS

The couple met in far less exotic surroundings – in high school in Texas City, Texas, and started dating a year later.

At one point during their four years together, they admit, there was a bit of a split until, Tim says, he “realized I was a complete fool and idiot and came crawling back.”

Reunited, the couple would go on to marry when Tim was a senior in college – only after assuring her mother Lee would complete her own degree.

Tim, first studying philosophy, would eventually go into law.

“I tended to work as a trial lawyer,” he says, often traveling for major cases. “I was either billing 90 hours a week or stressed or worried because I wasn’t interested in billing 90 hours a week.”

The move to education was made, which pleased Lee from the start.

“Something I’ve loved about him being a professor is the fact that he can go anywhere,” Lee says.

But that first job ended up being quite long term.

Tim would begin as a law professor, then transition to many other roles, including associate provost, over 18 years at the University of Mississippi.

“I have wonderful memories of my family coming to my office on campus,” Tim says of that time. These include teaching his son, Ben, to ride a bike in the adjacent parking lot. Today, Ben is living in Nashville while their daughter, Amy, may soon make the move to New York.

NORTHWARD BOUND

“We’ve always loved visiting New York City,” Tim says. “We’ve done it across the years.”

They share the story of a particular visit to Manhattan in the 1980s when Lee urged Tim to take her photo in Times Square.

“I said to him ‘Take a picture. I’ve never been this cold in my life,’” she says with a laugh.

Now living in New York – despite what winter weather they will encounter – has a lovely serendipity to it, Lee says. She explains how the Halls had a French-made wallpaper in their Tennessee home that depicted historic images, including New York Harbor.

“We’ve lived with this for seven years,” Lee says, seeming in awe she’s now just miles from the scene.

And, Tim adds, Mississippi-born writer Willie Morris’ “North Toward Home,” which touches on Southerners who move north but never abandon their roots, has been a longtime favorite.

AN ACTIVE PARTNER

Though heavily involved in campus life at Austin Peay, Lee has always cultivated her own interests.

Once seeing a young, seemingly aimless girl, Lee was struck by the fact that there was likely “no one telling her how special she (was).”

The observation led to action: “I decided to start a mentoring group.”

Lee would end up working with a group of young teens for five years, creating a program that would touch on everything from Bible studies to the portrayal of women in fashion magazines to basics of cooking, sewing and crafts. Entrepreneurship was also explored.

“I gave them an example of a small-business experience,” she says. “It actually opened up their world.”

Throughout, she has continued to write.

“I’ve written a lot of Bible studies,” Lee says, adding that she hopes now she will have the time to pursue publication, as well as a master’s degree in theology.

Tim, who has been published, likes to give her a push.

“He’s always going ‘You’re not going to start publishing if you don’t send things out.’”

The gentle nudge might cause her to roll her eyes ever so slightly, but within moments, she is pointing out another of Tim’s accomplishments with obvious pride.

There’s no doubt the Halls are a team.

“I like him,” she says, with a quick laugh.

And clearly, as his broad smile attests, Tim feels the same about Lee.

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