Cindy Brodhead knows how to throw a party.
Tucked away behind the football stadium and Blue Zone, the Hart House—where the Brodheads have lived for the majority of their 13 years at Duke—has three giant tents filled with sharp linen tablecloths and blossoming peonies on the afternoon I visit. Decorators and caterers scurry about, occasionally receiving nods of approval from Cindy as she positions centerpieces and table settings.
There’s not a wedding or graduation celebration approaching—it’s simply a typical Tuesday afternoon for Cindy, who has opened up her home for the Duke community, so often that the Brodheads built an additional parking lot and a separate catering kitchen. The event she is currently setting up for is one of a series of thank-you dinners for donors to the Duke Forward fundraising campaign.
“Our goal is to have as many kinds of events here as we can—student, alumni, community groups,” she said. “To get a lot of people in the house and to make people feel that it’s Duke’s house, it’s their house.”
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Cindy said she loves connecting people at parties, bridging gaps between often disparate figures to create friendships and even partnerships.
“There’s a real connecting role that has been fun for me,” she said. “Introducing people and finding out two weeks later they met again and hit it off and are going to be working on something really important and interesting—that’s the best.”
But Cindy is not just a party planner. She has a master's degree in English literature from Yale, where she met Brodhead, and earned her law degree from the University of Connecticut. She practiced law in Connecticut for many years before moving to Durham.
Cindy explained that when they moved to Durham from Connecticut, she decided not to start from scratch in North Carolina law, opting instead to immerse herself in Duke.
“I had seen some role models in the role of presidential spouse and had come to believe that that was a very important support role,” she said. “I like people, I love the life of a university. So I really wanted to kind of be all in on that, and I saw this role as a way of really getting to know the university, absorbing its values and excitements and then representing its values to the rest of the world.”
While Brodhead sometimes speaks with the lofty rhetoric of an academic, Cindy speaks more bluntly, like the lawyer she is by training.
“I was a lawyer all my life, I was constantly out in the community,” she said. “I was outwardly facing—I’m not an academic, I’m not a teacher.”
Although she made the decision to stop practicing law when she moved to Durham, she has managed to make a name for herself through her volunteer activities.
Right now, she is heavily involved with advisory boards for the Nasher Museum of Art and the East Durham Children’s Initiative. She previously served on a board for the Carolina Ballet—the arts are a particular passion for her, she said.
Cindy also sits at the helm of the advisory board for the Duke Gardens and will soon lead its capital campaign. The Gardens have long held a special place in the Brodheads’ hearts, said William LeFevre, executive director of the Gardens and a friend of the couple. Cindy first got involved with the gardens by volunteering to plant flowers—an activity she called “therapeutic.”
“She’d be up to her knees in dirt,” said LeFevre, who described Cindy as a “doer” who doesn’t fit “the old model of just the president’s wife.”