For women’s history month, The Lantern is releasing a series of profiles on powerful women at or involved with Ohio State. The first of the series is Brenda Drake, a former lawyer and current philanthropist, chairwoman and art expert.
Brenda Drake can’t stop complimenting artists: journalists, performers, actors, singers, bands, chefs, documentary directors. It doesn’t matter what kind of art. She knows who made it and she loves them.
One January afternoon, her praises centered on a French filmmaker named Agnès Varda. Varda is in her 80s and made a documentary titled “Faces, Places (Visage Villages)” about her travels around rural France with a performance artist named JR. Brenda goes on and on about the incredible interplay between a filmmaker, “whatever she is, like 86 or 87, she’s amazing,” and the young artist who is “inspiring on a lot of levels.”
Varda, Brenda said, is “just so incredibly avant-garde and cool.”
The majority of Columbus doesn’t see Brenda Drake relaxed by a fireplace talking about art. The majority of Columbus sees Brenda Drake in uniform, dressed to the nines at parties or fundraisers or events raising money for Ohio State and its students. She is often associated with her partner, which makes it easy for the public to know her only as “the wife of,” when in reality, five minutes of conversing with the former lawyer and and current philanthropist and art expert displays just how vast her knowledge is. Five minutes with her could take any preconceived notions of her just being “the wife” and evaporate them into oblivion forever.
Brenda’s husband, Michael, is Ohio State’s president. He’s her movie buddy (they recently saw “Black Panther”); eating partner (they try to eat mostly vegetarian; their go-tos are stir fry and chili); and Netflix teammate (they’re watching “Godless”).
Together, one might call them a power couple. Apart, one could call her a stand-alone power.
She walks quietly, whether she’s wearing her loafers for an afternoon of reading or sneakers for her workout classes, but her presence is nothing but deafening.
Brenda carries conversation confidently with the knowledge only a woman with years of education, compassion and drive could.
At the Drake holiday party, it is Brenda who partygoers so often flock to first, not the university president. During an afternoon of tea, it is Brenda who lists off Beatles hit after Beatles hit, not the men in the room. And during a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, it is Brenda who sits on a panel of legislators, contributing to the dialogue with equal power and emphasis.
She asks questions and makes statements that could easily be confused with text on Tumblr graphics, like “Are [newspapers] in vogue or not?” and “I actually love food.”
At 14, she fell in love with art. She began to evaluate operas like “Madame Butterfly” and started listening to symphonies. Her walls were decorated with prints from art museums and her time was occupied by paintings and music, poetry and dance.
She started applying for college at 16, went to Stanford at 17, graduated with two majors at 20 and started law school at University of California, Berkeley. She finished law school, passed the bar exam, got married and moved to Los Angeles in a three-month time period.
Brenda likes tea, art (all of it, all of its makers) and the news. She loves Alice Waters of California restaurant Chez Panisse and her favorite athlete is Kelsey Mitchell, a star guard on Ohio State’s women’s basketball team.
She journals every day. She feels inspired by red cardinals in the snow.
Brenda wears loafers, but especially likes to wear Birkenstocks around the house when guests aren’t over. She loves the song “Redbone” by Childish Gambino. To her, he’s infatuating.
“Donald Glover is awesome. Childish Gambino, I think he’s great. He’s just so talented, it’s amazing. He’s really good, I don’t see how you do that. He writes, he acts, he sings. I think he’s wonderful,” she said.
Her kitchen is filled with organic food but she understands the privilege that allows her to afford it, “I appreciate the opportunity to have them.” She’d eat non-organic food without causing a fuss, though, “I’m not that person.” She’s a news junky, “but not the kind of person who keeps CNN or something else on all day.”
Upon entering her Bexley home, one might expect it to be decorated with classic art, stiff sculptures and politically correct, approved-upon figures. That’s not the case. She picked out African busts, Pizzuti Collection canvases and modern sculptures that resemble colorful Post-It Notes.
In December, her living room was home to a 15-foot Christmas tree and a pianist. By January, it was replaced by a coffee table with a Pete Souza book on top.
Upon meeting her (she stands what can’t be more than 5 feet tall with a crisp, white-toothed smile) one might expect her to be standoffish or scripted. That’s not usually the case — she’s a representative of the university, so she knows what to say and when to say it, but often withholds the produced version of herself. She’s in tune with pop culture and wants the best for college-aged women. She tries Skyline to get to know students. She really, really likes Childish Gambino.
The photographs and interviews and conferences and panels she is often part of don’t give the impression that’s missed too often, perhaps the true impression, the impression that should not be missed at all: Brenda Drake is avant-garde and cool.