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Behind this college president: encouraging parents, flexible husband

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How does one get to be president of a prestigious women's college? For Mary Metz, president of Mills College, in East Oakland, Calif., it was a combination of early family experiences, her husband's ''portable'' career, and her own tendency to ''do everything the best I can.''

This vibrant, suntanned administrator spoke with me during a recent visit to Boston. A soft Southern accent mellowed her crisp speech as she recalled the beginnings of her route to Mills in her own upbringing and the regional tradition of her native South Carolina.

She reminded me that the South has a tradition of female strength. ''Maybe it goes back to the Civil War, when many strong women ran the farms. The families were kept together by the women. They weren't necessarily out working in the marketplace, but they were managers.''

Her grandmother was one of those women. Dr. Metz considers her ''an outstanding role model, because she was a leader in the church and community.''

Dr. Metz's parents also contributed to her interest in education. ''My mother ,'' she said, ''was a schoolteacher and the only woman principal. My father was an intelligent mentor who asked my opinion on politics and economics, even though he had to explain the issues to me. I can remember his doing this at dinner when I was seven years old. He was ready to listen to my answers to his questions. He never said, 'If you go to college . . . .' He always said, 'When you go to college . . . .' ''

She and Eugene, her husband of 26 years, dated for seven years before getting married. He graduated from Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., she from Furman University in Greenville, S.C., in the '50s. Shortly after graduating, Dr. Metz began teaching at her local high school.

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