In an orchestra, it can be difficult for an audience to differentiate between the first and second violins.
The first violin is responsible for carrying the tune of a melody while the second violin is responsible for playing a supportive role harmonically and rhythmically to the first violins. Although the two roles play different parts, all members share in the responsibility of blending seamlessly together as one unit to create beautiful music.
To play second fiddle to anything is often a role that is overlooked. But this humble place is necessary and vital. It is the unique role First Lady Julie Taylor, executive director of the Legacy League, has filled with Samford University playing first violin.
Recently, in celebration of Women’s History Month and of the seldom recognized contributions women have made to the workforce, Taylor shared her unique perspective in her talk, "First Lady and Second Fiddle."
“In an academic institution where degrees and resumes are highly important, no degrees or resumes are required to get the job of first lady,” Taylor said. “I found that I got the job of first lady, initially in 2013, with no interview, no application and no colleagues on campus.”
First lady or first gentleman is a distinctive role; those who fill it don’t choose to. Universities do not provide coursework or programs that prepare students to become first ladies or first gentlemen. Such positions usually have a strict set of written and unwritten expectations that must be navigated.
“The role of first lady is very unique and very much an invisible role in academia,” Taylor said. “In the 1980s, the term ‘invisible work’ was coined to describe ‘women’s work,’ like ‘volunteer work’ that is vital to institutions but largely disregarded, often unknown, often unpaid and often unrecognized. If there has ever been a job that I have filled that has been the polar opposite of the rest of the culture of academia, it is this role.”
Being first lady of a college or university is more than a full-time position; it is an all-time position with a wide range of demands, unseen work and other duties as assigned.
“Something that makes this role unique is that it's both a hidden role and a highly visible role,” Taylor said. “Other roles on campus that I've served in, you come to work, and you put on your work hat and you can take it off when you leave. You can have your mom hat, your church hat, your work hat; but as first lady, I never take off that hat. People expect me to interact with them as first lady of Samford University, and so I wear all the hats all the time. I never take off the first lady hat.”
The nature of American culture is to feel that the worker is a superhero and that their body is invincible and able to withstand intense pressure and work. Unfortunately, this is simply not true.
“We're human and we exist in bodies,” Taylor said. “That is something that is a real leadership lesson. We don't love when people say, ‘You've tirelessly worked,’ because we're tired, everybody's tired when they've worked hard. Let's instead celebrate the good work and recognize that we all need time off from time to time.”
Playing second fiddle to the whole of Samford University is no small feat, but Taylor does not lament her duty; she loves it.
“I have a unique opportunity of having access to everything going on,” she said. “I can attend and celebrate any type of athletic event, arts, research—and I do. When you think about an orchestra, the second fiddle tunes to the first fiddles. So, to me, everyone else at the university are the first fiddles no matter what song they're playing. No matter what the role is, I can listen, and as I listen to people, I can see their plan and I can promote it. My role is primarily advancement, so being a second fiddle is a great place to be because I have so many connection points.”
Taylor’s time as first lady has equipped her with a unique perspective on leadership that is informed by experience and grounded in her faith. Drawing strength from the teachings of Christ, as well as her predecessors, Taylor seeks to make room for others.
“I don't need to be the most highly visible or the most admired person in the room. I don't even need to have my voice be the strongest at the table,” Taylor said. “I can make space for others, and that's leading. I think Christ taught us that. I mean, I think Christ’s example of leadership is one of humility and making space at the table to hear from others, so why wouldn't I want to?”
Taylor does not endeavor to play second fiddle alone. This position is a calling that she shares with her husband, Beck A. Taylor, president of Samford University, as well as the supportive staff in the Office of the President. Similarly, Taylor draws support from former first ladies of Samford, Jeanna Westmoreland and Marla Corts, and colleagues of hers at other universities.
“For the last 13 years, we've met with a small group of Christian college presidents and spouses, and we retreat together every summer,” Taylor said. “It is not just about best practices. There is a little of that, but it's mostly, ‘How are you doing and how can we pray for you?’ There are always ways that we can encourage each other. We have done life together and prayed with each other through the pandemic. Those guys are on speed dial for us, they're on Zoom regularly. During the pandemic, they were on Zoom constantly discussing, ‘How are we going to get our universities through this?’ That group has been such a gift.”
In Taylor’s brief time as first lady of Samford, she has remained dedicated to serving and supporting the university in countless ways, not unlike many Samford employees and faculty who go above and beyond to advance the institution.
“I want to be an encouragement to the rest of us on campus who are not serving in highly visible roles, that may be lesser known or more hidden,” Taylor said. “Good and healthy institutions have lots of people in leadership who are not getting the attention and the praise. I view myself as second fiddle to this university and to all the people who work here.”