Profile in Public Service: James Cathro (MPP ’16) Brings Passion for Service to His Role at the Batten School

This article is part of the series "Profiles in Public Service," sharing the stories of Batten School community members making a difference in leadership and public policy across the past fifteen years.

James Cathro Batten School
James Cathro (MPP '16) is currently the director of finance and administration at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, but as a graduate of the Batten School and currently a U.S. Naval Reserves Officer, he brings a heart of servant leadership to all he does.

Today, James Cathro is the director of finance and administration at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, a role where he serves as the connective tissue between different parts of Batten. But his education at the U.S. Naval Academy, subsequent military service and his time as a student at the Batten School all combined to eventually equip him to have the impact he has today. The opportunity to serve the community was a draw when he decided to return to the Batten School, this time as staff. “A major appeal of the military, to me, was having the opportunity to contribute to the common welfare of our country,” he said. “And the Batten School is preparing our graduates to do the same thing.”

Cathro graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2005. Upon his commission as a 23-year-old ensign, he reported to duty. Recalling the experience, Cathro remembers the intensity of the immediate tasks thrown his way and said, “I was supervisor of the Division Chief– but he was twice my age and had been doing this for 20 years. I’d only been at it a week, and yet I was supposed to tell him what to do.”

But his education at the Naval Academy, combined with an approach of service leadership, gave Cathro the tools needed to approach complicated situations and move an organization towards a shared goal.

“I knew I was never going to be the subject matter expert; my job was to ensure accountability and motivate the people working with me — not to turn them off, not to burn bridges, but to figure out a way together to get things done right. Which sort of relates to what I get to do here at the Batten School.”

Going from boat to Batten wasn’t, it turns out, much of a stretch.

James Cathro US Navy
James Cathro (front row, left of center) graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and had a career in explosive ordinance disposal, deploying to Iraq.

Charlottesville Calls

Cathro was born in South Africa to an American mother and British ex-pat father. Eventually, the family moved to Northern Virginia, where Cathro entertained “romantic notions of ships and cannons and life on the high seas” starting in early childhood. The Naval Academy was a natural choice, and it was there that he met his wife, Lindsay.

Together, James and Lindsay have a remarkable service record. He spent two years on minesweepers out of Texas, transitioned to a career in explosive ordnance disposal and deployed to Iraq.

It was on a tour training Iraqi service members on rendering safe explosive hazards where Cathro noticed the value of public policy. “The Iraqi soldiers had the skills and desire to autonomously provide security for their people,” Cathro said, “but they lacked the infrastructure and the support to allow them to be as impactful as they wanted to be.”

Meanwhile, Lindsay started her naval career on a frigate in Florida then moved to a pre-commissioned destroyer being built in Gulfport, Miss. The couple married in 2011 and decided to put down roots at James’s family farm in Charlottesville.

James and Lindsay managed to feed their adventurous spirits even after they both moved from active duty to Reserves in 2014. This included four months hiking the Appalachian Trail, Lindsay transitioning to teaching for Albemarle County public schools, and James coming to the Batten School as a post-graduate MPP candidate, starting his program 48 hours after climbing down Mount Katahdin in Maine.

James and Lindsay Cathro
James Cathro and his wife, Lindsay, have always found ways to feed their adventurous spirits, including spending four months hiking the Appalachian Trail together.

A Connector

When asked to reflect on his education at the Batten School, Cathro said, “a lot of the things that my gut intuition told me from experiential learning in the Navy were backed up by academic learning in the classroom.”

His time at the Batten School not only provided him the opportunity to connect his public service to public policy, but it also allowed him space to explore diverse interests. “I came in with a background focused heavily on national security and it was exciting to explore what else was out there.” He found he particularly enjoyed economics, statistics and geographic information systems classes.

After graduating in 2016, he worked in the University’s central budget office. But two years later, the opportunity to return “home” to Batten came. “I was encouraged to apply for the job of assistant director of budget and finance. Man, that was a special feeling and a pretty easy decision to make,” he said.

Cathro, who has now been at the Batten School as an integral and beloved staff member for four years, does his work with an eye on the overall goals and vision of Batten, having experienced it as both a student and staff support for the programs.

“The Batten School strives to create opportunities to serve our country, encouraging the community to lead from anywhere and bring opportunities for public good. It’s an ethos I could tell the school had when I was a student here and strive to live up to in my current role.”

He credits his position today with allowing him space to continue to grow and learn. But, he adds, “there’s also a human element... I want to work to connect folks to figure out a way to get the mission at hand done. I'm not the expert in some technical aspects of finance at UVA just as I wasn't the expert at fixing autonomous vehicles in in the Navy. But I knew who was and I knew how to help them with the things they needed to get their job done.”


Garrett Hall at Sunset

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