A National Merit scholar, Jackson went on to nearby Tulane, working for Shell Oil Company during summers in the sexy-sounding "gas plant maintenance"—"She wore overalls and a hard hat, and she had these big iron-toed shoes, big men's shoes," Marie remembers. The only other woman there, Jackson recalls, was the plant secretary. Jackson graduated summa cum laude in chemical engineering, the only female in her class to do so, and headed to Princeton for a master's (she has a photo of herself wearing large pink hair rollers while packing the car for the Ivy League: "That was the hot thing—pink rollers, baby"). But as her mother tells it, Jackson has always been exceptional. "She came out with things that other children didn't," Marie says. "The nuns were amazed." Like the time in third grade when Jackson wrote a letter to President Nixon asking him to make the world a more peaceful place, and, prophetically enough, to "care for the planet." Or in her high school valedictory speech when she summed up her philosophy of life by quoting Jesse Jackson: "If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, I know I can achieve it."
Back in Jackson's office, she moves on to more pictures. "That's the lead singer of the Flaming Lips," she says. "I just thought that photo was the coolest thing. And this"—pointing to a picture of a very tall, very handsome guy in a silver frame—"is Kenny."
Eighteen years ago she met Kenny Jackson, her second husband and the father of her two teenage sons, Marcus, 16, and Brian, 14, on the commuter train from New Jersey to Manhattan, where she worked for the EPA, a few blocks from the World Trade Center. (On September 11, 2001, rushing out of the building after the first tower was hit, she saw a panicked coworker in a wheelchair and proceeded to push the woman 49 blocks to safety). Kenny, who tests software for Bank of America, often works from home—"which means the kids come home to a parent," says Jackson. "We didn't like the idea of them returning to an empty house."
Clearly, if you're a member of the cabinet, it helps if your spouse is a multitasking mensch. "He's a great, great dad, and a great support to Lisa and her career," says Jackson's best friend of 18 years, Kathleen DeLemos. "But he also keeps her grounded. I think we both do. 'Yeah, yeah, you're a cabinet member, blah, blah, but your hair is sticking out on top of your head.'"
Jackson glances at the clock and jumps up, teetering on her stilettos—time to prepare for the EPA's 40th anniversary party. ("It's sort of good fortune to have a multiple of ten while we're here," she notes. "I wish it were 50, but, you know, 40 is cool, too.") Already hundreds of her employees are jamming a majestic auditorium in a neighboring building to hear their leader speak. As celebrations go, this could have been a total wonkfest, befitting the booths and displays lining the halls detailing the EPA's greatest hits, such as how Three Mile Island was ultimately contained, and a chemistry experiment involving rock salt and baking soda. Jackson, however, envisioned something a little more, well, Lisa Jackson, so she invited her friend Dionne Warwick to fly in as a surprise guest and perform. (They met through their mutual hairdresser in New Jersey.) "These days are so much about building esprit de corps," she explains. "It's hard to work here—especially when you're under attack by Congress, lobbyists, and special interests."
It's always been hard. Fifteen months after Jackson was sworn in, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and spewing nearly five million barrels of crude into the Gulf. It was the largest marine spill in oil industry history and, for the woman recently charged with protecting our air and water, a baptism by belching fire and smoke, as the EPA, working with the U.S. Coast Guard and other entities, searched for a way to contain the spread of oil to the thickly populated shores Jackson knew so well. While President Obama was attacked for not acting quickly enough, Jackson was accused of not being well enough informed about the cleanup options, particularly the long-term effects of using chemical dispersants on the toxic clots oozing through the Gulf. At a certain point she even seemed to recede from the media, although as she explains it, "When it was going on, especially when it was gushing even in the weeks after they capped it, my schedule was entirely different—I would not have scheduled [speaking engagements], because it would have been disrespectful to the people down there who were watching this horrible thing unfold."