By Cody Mello-Klein and Denise Dunbar
The 32 years since U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and his wife Lisa Collis married have included business success, an active family life and a flourishing political career that is the culmination of a long-cherished dream for Mark and something the more-reserved Lisa has navigated on her own terms.
But before all of that, there was a beer and pretzels party in 1984 at the home in D.C. where Mark was living with a bunch of guys. Things between the two of them got off to an inauspicious start that night.
“We weren’t that young,” Lisa said. “We were 29, and when you got to the party it was like we were 19 again. A keg in the basement and the food offered was pretzels still in the bag in the kitchen. … But anyway, it was a very fun party.”
They officially met in the closet in Mark’s bedroom.
“Lisa had gone upstairs with one of my law school classmates who was at the party and they were hanging out,” Mark said.
“He was giving a tour of the house,” Lisa countered.
“They were in my closet. They were trying on all my suits. It made me mad. I didn’t have that many. There were like eight people in my room with all parts of my wardrobe,” Mark said.
Lisa contended it wasn’t the suits themselves, but the state they were in that led the revelers to try them on.
“The reason we went in there was he had a walk-in closet, but all his clothes were on the floor,” Lisa said. “Some of his suits had vests. Some of the people were just putting on the vests. They were like, ‘Oh, we should wear his clothes because he obviously doesn’t care very much about them.’ And so, we all kind of put his clothes on and we were walking through the party. It was kind of goofy.”
Mark was not pleased.
“But then Mark got hyper upset that we were going to hurt his clothes – that had been piled on the floor,” Lisa laughed.
At first glance, Mark and Lisa are an unlikely couple: He’s tall, sports-oriented and extremely outgoing, while she’s petite, low-key and more reserved. Because of their differences, Lisa’s roommate, who knew Mark fairly well since she was dating one of his co-workers, never thought to introduce Mark and Lisa.
“Her prediction was that ‘I don’t think you would get along,’” Lisa said. “So, they were shocked when we started dating.”
Despite the brouhaha over Mark’s suits-on-the-floor, the two hit it off that night.
“He was wearing this old, striped, rugby shirt that was about two sizes too small. He looked a little goofy,” Lisa said. “That was my first impression of him. But he was funny and very outgoing. And we had a couple of long conversations and danced a little. I don’t know, I thought he was fun. Sort of a certain charm.”
Mark’s initial interest in Lisa was furthered by a twinge of competitiveness.
“My law school friend really liked her, and since we had dated some of the same women in law school, I thought I should kind of check this one out,” Mark said.
Their first date was in Alexandria, where Lisa lived, at the Afghan restaurant Bamiyan. In the mid-80s the U.S. was funding Afghani fighters who were waging war against the occupying Soviet army and the restaurant had enormous murals of mujahideen bearing large belts of machine-gun bullets.
“It was like the first and last time I willingly ate Afghani food,” Mark laughed. “There is some good Afghani food, but I was trying to show my worldly nature.”
Despite their differences, there were similarities in their backgrounds. Both had lived in multiple states growing up and both had graduate degrees.
Mark was born in Indiana and later lived in Illinois before his family moved to Connecticut, where he attended high school. He holds an undergraduate degree from George Washington University and graduated from Harvard Law School.
Lisa is the daughter of a naval aviator and was born in Pensacola, Florida. Growing up she also moved around quite a bit, with stops in California, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Puerto Rico, Texas and Virginia. She has a B.A. in biology from the University of Virginia and a master’s in public health from the University of Texas.
When the two met, Mark was in the early stages of a business career that had been slow getting off the ground.
“ … I was starting on my business forays, of which I immediately failed at the first two,” Mark said.
But by the time he met Lisa in 1984, he was becoming involved with the cell phone business that would later earn him a fortune.
“At that point the FCC was granting these licenses and I was trying to put deals together on that and so I was not dead broke at that point,” Mark said.
Lisa was involved with nutrition and health issues, having spent two years in Guatemala working on a nutrition study. She was also assisting with a legal case involving Vietnamese orphans who had been in a plane crash.
“I was helping on that case because there were some issues surrounding malnutrition and how that affects growth and development,” Lisa said. “I went on after that to work at the World Bank, but when we had our first daughter, I stopped working.”
The two dated for more than four years before finally becoming engaged.
“Mark had a very hard time making that final commitment,” Lisa said with a laugh.
“We had a little bit of a period where we had a trial engagement where we weren’t going to tell anybody,” Mark said.
“He wanted to know how it felt. He just had, you know, ‘forever’ kind of sounds like a long time,” Lisa said.
Their wedding date was April 15, 1989, and it was, surprisingly, Mark more than Lisa who had long-thoughtout plans of how the wedding and attendant festivities should go. For instance, he had 13 groomsmen while she had two maids of honor.
“When we got engaged, Mark was the one who had all these expectations of the wedding, rather than I. He said, ‘When we do the wedding, we’re going to have this and this and this.’ He had been planning for years what his wedding was going to be like,” Lisa said.
While the fun started with a party on Thursday night, it was the Friday night rehearsal dinner that contained one of the weekend’s most memorable moments: then-Sen. Ted Kennedy crashed the dinner and made a toast to the soon-to-wed couple.
The rehearsal dinner was held at a high-end restaurant on King Street, the current location of Village Brauhaus.
“We had the whole upstairs. Ted Kennedy was having dinner downstairs with one of his ‘younger friends,’ and people were giving toasts [at the rehearsal dinner] and all of a sudden Ted Kennedy is coming up,” Mark said. “I had worked for his friend Chris Dodd. … He gave this very nice toast.”
“He sort of crashed the party, but it was great,” Lisa laughed.
Competitive basketball games among Mark’s various groups of friends preceded the wedding on Saturday, which took place at St. John’s Episcopal Church in D.C., and the reception was at what is now the St. Regis hotel.
“We had a great, great wedding,” Mark said. “It was a multi-day fun extravaganza.”
While the wedding was a blast, the couple’s honeymoon was literally a burst.
Their elaborate honeymoon included planned stops in Egypt, Greece and Italy. All was going well in Egypt, where they went up the Nile River and were touring ancient sites, when Mark became ill.
“It was literally in the Valley of the Kings, on the way down to King Tut’s tomb, my frickin’ appendix burst,” Mark said.
“But we didn’t know that,” Lisa interjected.
Mark had previously suffered from colitis, and despite him feeling ill, the couple journeyed on to Greece.
“Mark said, ‘I just need to spend a day resting; it’ll be fine,’” Lisa said.
After several days, with Mark not any better, the pair flew home. But it took another week before his illness was fully diagnosed.
“So, I walked around for like 10 days with a burst appendix and finally got major surgery,” Mark said.
Mark wound up with serious complications from the burst appendix that resulted in him spending six weeks in the hospital and losing 30 pounds. But immediately upon leaving the hospital he became campaign manager for Doug Wilder’s 1989 campaign for governor.
“I went from the honeymoon to the hospital to getting my feet wet in Virginia politics,” Mark said.
While Mark had long planned his own run for office, his business career, which took off in the early ‘90s, led Lisa to think politics wasn’t going to happen.
“Obviously he’d talked about working for the DNC right out of law school. But he really was doing well, and he liked his business. I kind of thought it was going to be one of those things that he said he was going to do but he wasn’t going to do,” Lisa said with a laugh. “I didn’t take it that seriously.”
“I got to this period about 1994, you know, I’ve got to go ahead and pull the trigger and try it. … Would I be happy if I never had the courage to try?” Mark said.
Mark’s first race was an unsuccessful run against then incumbent Republican Sen. John Warner in 1996.
“The famous Warner vs. Warner race where we had the ‘Mark not John’ bumper stickers that people thought were biblical references,” Mark said.
Mark ran for and won the Virginia governorship in 2001. The pair served as the state’s first couple for the next four years, from January 2002 through January 2006. Mark then ran for the U.S. Senate in 2008 and won the seat that was being vacated by John Warner – who was retiring – a seat Mark still holds.
How did the long-time Old Town residents juggle raising three small daughters with the rigors of political campaigns? Help from family and financial independence played significant roles.
“During the gubernatorial campaign, my parents came and stayed for several months with us so that I could go off for four days or whatever. So that was a big help,” Lisa said.
“The fact that we had financial independence. That gave me an advantage that most people running for statewide office don’t have,” Mark said. “You didn’t have to worry about, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to take time off because I’ve got to keep feeding my family.’ You don’t want to have the presumption that you have to be financially independent to run, but it did make it a lot easier.”
And how has a self-described introvert who “hate[s] public speaking” navigated life with a man who has been Virginia’s most prominent political figure during 20 of their 32 years of marriage?
“We have a life together, but we also have independent interests,” Lisa said.