In her first visit to the First Ladies National Historic Site, Jennifer Highfield instantly fell in love with the Ida Saxton McKinley House.
“I was so impressed with the house, with its beauty and the painstaking process they took to restore it, from the woodwork to the wallpaper,” Highfield said. “You don’t see that a lot in historic homes or places where they make a truly painstaking effort, so that was fascinating to me.”
She also loved the potential that the site presented.
Highfield, who was hired as the library’s president and chief executive officer in January, now is drawing upon her experiences with museums and nonprofit organizations to help the National First Ladies’ Library enhance how it honors the lives and accomplishments of the nation’s first ladies.
“The beauty of having this job is that it brings it all home,” Highfield said. “I get to bring in all my experiences from the museums and historic places that I worked for into this job. It was such a win-win-win.”
Highfield, a Columbus native who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art history, returned to Ohio in 1999 after traveling the nation with her husband, who is a ballet dancer.
She wanted to follow her passion and work for an area art museum or restoration firm, but struggled to find full-time work. In her spare time, she volunteered to help art museums, ballet companies and other nonprofit organizations with their fundraising initiatives.
“What was my volunteer job became my full-time job,” Highfield said. “… Here we are, 20 years later, and I’m still working for nonprofits.”
Highfield most recently served as the director of advancement for the West Side Catholic Center, a social service agency in Cleveland. In her roughly six years there, she raised more than $10 million for programming and capital improvement projects, helped the organization rebrand itself and significantly increased individual charitable and in-kind support.
One of Highfield’s immediate goals for the First Ladies’ Library is to better highlight the fact the Saxton McKinley House and the Library Education and Research Center in the former City National Bank building are part of a National Park Service site.
“There are signs that bear the moniker, and our name reflects that, but when you are on-site, you don’t feel that,” she said. “We’re one of only three (National Park Service sites) in this region. I want to make sure that is known and people are aware.”
She also has sought the park service’s help to bring in a nationwide consultant to evaluate how to expand the library’s existing interior space to better accommodate the First Ladies’ ever-evolving story.
“We have an incredible opportunity to share the past, present and future of the First Ladies with visitors, and to engage the nation in an ongoing dialogue about them and many first women of the United States,” she said. “The strength of the exhibitions, public programs and educational outreach justifies expansion, and I hope I can help bring the (National First Ladies’ Library) the resources and recognition it deserves.”
Most unique or unusual product:
Frito-Lay’s Rold Gold pretzels: “One-third of the nation’s stock is made here, and I’m a huge fan and so are my children. There’s a bag in my car and there’s a bag in my purse at all times,” Highfield said.
Basil Asian Bistro: “We’ve been all over the world and have eaten some amazing food, so we love when we get to eat local food that is really well made,” said Highfield, who tries a different dish during each visit. “Their cuisine is fantastic.”
Favorite thing to do:
Canton Museum of Art: “I think it’s an amazing gem this community has,” Highfield said. “Their programming is phenomenal.”
Local CEO or business owner you admire:
Barb Abbott of Canton Food Tours: “What she is doing is truly fantastic,” Highfield said. “She’s bringing in people not only to this community but others, and she is telling the story of the community in a fun and engaging way. Those are the type of people who make a difference in communities like this.”
Favorite place to take the kids:
McKinley Presidential Library & Museum: “It was a pleasant surprise for us. They thought that was really cool,” said Highfield, mother to three girls, ages 14, 9 and 3. “They still talk about the dinosaur. It’s not what you expect it to be. You expect more of a historic place, but it’s more eclectic than that. … It’s so tactile. You get to touch things and engage in things, you’re not just looking at something across the rope.”
Favorite coffee shop:
Muggswigz: “That place is really fun,” Highfield said. “You could go into a diabetic coma if you wanted to. I’ve never seen more coffees, lattes, teas. … They really do have a lot of really cool concoctions.”
Most memorable spot:
Canton Palace Theatre: “It was sort of our first true experience here,” Highfield said. “My husband performed there. The theater is truly beautiful.”
Favorite volunteer opportunity:
National First Ladies’ Library: “You get to meet so many interesting people who come for very different reasons, and they come from all over,” Highfield said. “It’s not just us telling our story, but you also hear their stories.”