An Afternoon With Gail Gentes

by Lauren Huff | 1/23/15 12:13am

As I timidly approached the President’s House, walking up the long drive to the house nestled between a patch of trees, the first thing I noticed was that the house has two mailboxes. To the left of the wreath-clad door is a wooden box marked “Hinman,” and to the right, an identical box marked “Mail.” If being exempt from the ordeal of waiting in the Hinman line for packages doesn’t qualify as true presidential treatment, then I don’t know what does.

Earlier this week, Gail Gentes, director of action-based learning programs and College President Phil Hanlon’s wife, graciously allowed me and my editor Charlie to come into her home for a private tour of the President’s House. Though she didn’t quite understand our overwhelming enthusiasm about the tour, she welcomed us warmly.

It’s no secret that some Dartmouth students make plans to “visit” the President’s Lawn during their four years in Hanover, a right of passage instilled in many of us as early as freshman fall. Far fewer students, however, have taken the time to visit the actual building that sits on the property that holds, well, a special place in Dartmouth’s culture. For that reason, I was particularly excited to get a glimpse inside the place Hanlon and Gentes call home.

After traversing the front walkway, narrowly escaping death (or at least a concussion) as we slipped and slid over the ice rink that is Hanover, I rang the doorbell. Moments later, Gentes opened the door to greet us, and soon we were standing in the entryway, hanging our coats.

It seems as though the house was originally built so that both facades resemble the “front.” While currently the main entrance faces Webster Avenue, the House’s address is often listed as 1 Tuck Drive, and, according to Gentes, she and President Hanlon frequently receive mail addressed as such.

Perhaps this was purposeful in order to maintain the legacy of Edward Tuck, the house’s benefactor.

Before the current residence on Webster Avenue was erected, 10 different houses had been occupied by Dartmouth Presidents. The first, Wheelock House, was built in the late 18th century for Dartmouth founder Eleazar Wheelock, which miraculously still stands today. Wheelock’s descendants owned the house until 1838, when it was bought by the College and resold for removal.

The new owners of Wheelock House dragged the “executive mansion” to its current location on West Wheelock Street, where it later became the original Howe Library. The building is now Robert’s Flowers.

Upon our entrance into the house, Gentes immediately led us to a plaque commemorating the house’s creation. We caught a glimpse of the first floor bathroom on the way, appropriately outfitted with custom wallpaper bearing the image of the Lone Pine.

Gentes was eager to show off what are likely the most uniquely Dartmouth artifacts in the house — the dining room chairs. The dining room, according to Gentes, seats up to 20 guests, although she thinks 12-15 makes for a much more comfortable dinner. Each chair boasts a custom-made needlepoint cushion that commemorates a College President Emeritus.

“When a President leaves, they have cross-stitched symbols that characterize aspects of their presidency,” Gentes explained. “[Former College President] Jim Kim’s cushion is being made as we speak. There’s one for every President.”

We inquired about what Gentes expected to see on her husband’s cushion in the future. Could it be a Moving Dartmouth Forward plaque?

“Well, I think it’s too early to tell,” Gentes said. “We have many more years of Phil’s presidency.”

Next, attention was directed to the art on the walls. As we learned on our tour, one of the perks of living in the President’s House is access to a custom selection from the Hood Museum of Art for decoration.

The first step in choosing works was a long conversation with a curator from the Hood who deduced Gentes’s preferences and presented her with artworks she might like.

“From that she gained my philosophy,” Gentes explained. “I couldn’t tell you what my philosophy is, but from the kinds of questions she asked me, she gauged what I might like.”

Across from the dining room is the living room, which tends to be used primarily to entertain guests. Considering Hanlon and Gentes host about 150 events per year, the room sees a fair amount of use.

The guests run the gamut, from students and faculty to foreign dignitaries. One highlight for Gentes was hosting former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright last spring. After a packed lecture in Spaulding Auditorium, Ms. Albright headed to the President’s House for dinner.

“She had dinner here and talked for another three hours,” Gentes said. “It was unbelievable.”

Just this year, Hanlon and Gentes hosted each member of the Class of 2014 who was writing a senior thesis and heard a short explanation from each student about their respective areas of study. Gentes and Hanlon plan to make this a tradition.

In order to feed so many guests, Gentes and Hanlon use catering, but even on off-nights, Gentes prefers not to cook.

“When we’re just home alone, Phil does most of the cooking,” Gentes said. “Early on in life I decided I was not meant to be in the kitchen.”

Although Gentes and Hanlon don’t order in often, they have been known to make the occasional call to EBAs. They keep it classic — onions, green peppers, mushrooms and jalapeños. The pizza deliverer often calls, rather than ringing the doorbell, Gentes said, noting that perhaps the deliverer expected that the order was actually a prank call from a student.

Next, we were led to Gentes’s favorite part of the house, a porch-like room with brick walls and big windows that allowed for ample natural light. There were plants all around the room and a table where Hanlon often eats his breakfast.

Our next stop on the tour was Hanlon’s home office, although Gentes admitted that, like most of us, he does most of his work on his laptop in the kitchen. The office is spacious, with bookshelves and a Dartmouth green rug. Among the items on Hanlon’s shelves are a calculus textbook and a signed Michigan football. And yes, there is a pong paddle on the wall — although the handle is not snapped off, raising important questions about its authenticity.

Noting the piano in Gentes and Hanlon’s living room, we asked Gentes about her music preferences. She explained that although she considered asking for a playlist from one of her children for Christmas, she never followed through on the plan.

“I do not have a playlist,” Gentes said. “I’m not really a music person.”

Despite her lack of playlist, Gentes does frequent the Alumni Gym to get some exercise (sans-music).

“I try to go twice a week,” Gentes said.

How’s that for some winter workout motivation?

Speaking of offices, I was curious how Hanlon commutes from his office at home to his daytime office in Parkhurst. Despite his reserved parking spot, Gentes said the President always walks.

“I don’t think he’s ever driven to work,” Gentes said. For the lucky portion of the Dartmouth population with cars, that’s great news. Next time you’re dreading that walk back from A-lot, you may want to scan the lot outside Parkhurst.

Finally, we made our way into the kitchen, separated from the rest of the house by a hallway. As we opened the door to the kitchen, we were greeted by Cassie, Gentes and Hanlon’s yellow lab.

Your reporters here at The Mirror were dismayed to note that the Valley News, and not The Dartmouth, was lying on the kitchen counter, though Gentes did say that she frequently reads these pages.

Gentes said that she and Hanlon spend the majority of their time in the kitchen.

“This is kind of where we live,” she said.

As our tour came to a close, we couldn’t help but ask the most pressing question on our minds. Yes, Gentes said, she is aware of her house’s special place in Dartmouth culture. Her thoughts on the students who come near the lawn looking to cross off one of the Dartmouth Seven?

“I just want people to know that there’s cameras outside, so they should beware.”