Violent storms swept through the Washington, D.C., area this summer just as UIndy’s new president, his wife, and their three daughters were preparing to leave that familiar ground for their new home in the Midwest.
“The day before we left, a tree fell on our house—there was this big opening in the back of our house,” Manuel recalls with a wry smile. To avoid troubling the kids, “We just basically swept that under the rug and left.”
Fortunately, he and Wilmara, his spouse of 13 years, had planned ahead. They and their daughters spent a week making the trip to Indianapolis, stopping to visit friends and sample Ohio’s Cedar Point amusement park. When they arrived, 11-year-old Sophia was already signed up for UIndy soccer camp. Eight-year-old Alexandra, nicknamed “Mimi,” was headed for ballet school in town. The youngest, 5-year-old Margaux, began exploring the city with her mom.
“They really are much more resilient than I thought they were going to be,” Manuel says. “None of this would have been possible without my wife. When I’m in the office from 7 in the morning until 7 at night, she has taken up the responsibility for getting the kids around town. So she’s the one who’s been scoping out the community.”
As followers of his Twitter and Facebook feeds can attest, he and his family have done their best to jump into UIndy and Circle City life, taking stock of campus landmarks and exploring local museums, restaurants, and other attractions.
Manuel, who tends to introduce himself simply as “Rob,” grew up one of four kids in the western Massachusetts town of North Adams. The family enjoyed the outdoors, camping and hiking. He swam and ran cross country, then picked up cycling and for a time competed in triathlons.
“I’m trying to make my big comeback,” he says. “I injured my hip, but I’ve been seeing one of our physical therapists—a wonderful opportunity to see how great our faculty are.”
Rob and Wil, as she is known to friends, met while on the staff of New York University, falling in with a group of young professionals who enjoyed the city together. He then began to pursue his doctoral degree full-time and took a night job managing tech support for an Internet service provider.
“I was the guy you called at 10 o’clock at night when you couldn’t get connected to the Internet,” he says. When Wilmara also picked up some hours at the same ISP, he made a point of gallantly walking her home every night.
“Immediately, I thought we were dating, and about six months later she said, ‘OK, I think we’re dating,’” Manuel recalls. “So I was going out with her six months before she was going out with me.”
A native of Haiti, Wilmara spoke no English when she came to the United States at age 13. But she quickly learned and, as an undergraduate majoring in broadcast journalism, even mastered the homogenized Midwestern accent favored by TV newscasters. (She also speaks French and Haitian Creole.) She earned a master’s degree in higher-ed administration from NYU and worked in the field for some years before launching an event-planning business, Madly Stylish Events, which specializes in multicultural celebrations. She is also a consultant and media source on event planning.
“We’re pretty different,” Manuel says of his wife. “She’s far more adventurous. When we moved out here, we didn’t know anybody. She was the one who said, ‘We really should give this a shot.’ I kind of needed her to say that; that takes a lot of guts. She is very inventive with her life. She can fit in and adapt, and I think that’s where the kids get it. She has given up a lot for our family—but she has always been so good at balancing all of our family needs with her own professional passions.”
But surely—as Manuel has been asked many times by new acquaintances in Indy—the family must be in some culture shock after leaving the highbrow East Coast, right?
“Not so much,” Manuel says. “I grew up in a very small town, so in a lot of ways, this feels much more sympathetic to my tastes. In general, we can access more here. The kids can get involved with the campus community in ways we couldn’t before. So we’re not seeing this shock that everybody assumes we would have. I think part of the reason their transition is going so smoothly is because they have been welcomed into a place where they have access to most anything they’d want to do. New York was a wonderful place to live, and as singles and later a married couple without children, it offered incredible experiences. D.C. offered us a tremendous opportunity to expose our family to international culture. Now, Indianapolis offers us the opportunity to raise our children in a diverse, urban setting that is welcoming and accessible. We have been fortunate to have been in the right city at the right time throughout our lives.”
That being said, there is at least one thing the family is still looking for, Manuel says.
“We need babysitters.”