EVANSVILLE – The vote didn’t go Halla To´masdo´ttir’s way.

On Oct. 10, 1986, the exchange student from Iceland was one of six homecoming queen finalists who donned puffed-up dresses and stood in the middle of Central High School's football field, waiting to hear who would take home the crown.

In a heartbreaker, Halla came in second. But almost 38 years later – and a hemisphere away – she was part of another vote. And this one came out in her favor.

The former Evansville student was elected president of Iceland on Saturday, June 1, 2024, defeating multiple challengers to become the second woman to ever lead her home country. She officially takes over Aug. 1.

The 55-year-old investor, businesswoman and climate activist was a key figure in helping Iceland climb out of the 2008 financial crisis. She fell short in her first presidential run in 2016 but now, even though it's farther down her list of historic achievements, she can count herself as the first president of any country to graduate from an Evansville high school.

Darby Lindauer Hurley and her family hosted Halla during that exchange year at Central. The two have stayed in touch ever since.

The president-elect was in Darby’s wedding when she married now-Memorial High School football coach John Hurley in 1995. And in 2018, when Halla’s son Tomas wanted to become an exchange student himself – and play a little American football for the Tigers – Halla called Darby and asked if she could host him. She readily agreed.

Darby even sent the new president a congratulatory text message after the election results came in.

“She’s just an easygoing person – very down-to-Earth,” she said. “I wouldn’t think 'I shouldn’t message her, she’s president.' I still talk to her just like I would my own brothers.

“I don’t imagine (the presidency) will change her one bit.”

The president sang in the choir and wrote for the newspaper

Halla was one of three exchange students at Central that year. And according to the 1987 yearbook, she made the most of her high school experience.

She wrote columns for the school paper, served on the speech team, and sang in the choir. Wendy Bredhold, a former Evansville city councilor and current senior manager with the Audubon Society, was right there with her for the latter, belting eye-rolling renditions of Huey Lewis’ “Hip to be Square.”

A while ago, before the election news broke, Bredhold randomly thought of her old classmate and wondered what she’d been up to. The answer, of course, was quite a bit.

Bredhold read about Halla’s 2016 presidential bid and how she was in the midst of another. She also found a slew of TED Talks, as well as Halla’s work to curb climate change: something Bredhold has done herself for the past decade.

So she sent her a message on LinkedIn. She wanted to let Halla know she could do some good right in her former hometown: a place that infamously sits between a slew of super-polluters.

Plus, she just wanted to say hi.

“I was trying to reach out,” Bredhold said. “Although I think I said, ‘I’m sure you’re very busy running for president.’”

Bredhold remembers Halla as being “super friendly and open” – the kind of girl who could flit between social cliques and get along with everyone.

When Halla first arrived in Evansville, though, she lived with a different family and struggled to find her place. In the Central yearbook, she said she missed her friends and hated having a curfew: something that was out of the question back home. Dances in Iceland went so late that her school didn’t even bother having classes the next day.

Darby said Halla was so unhappy that she considered cutting the year short and going back to Iceland early.

But once she moved in with the Lindauers, everything changed. The busy, sports-centric family ushered her into American life with baseball games and late-night takeout from The Pizza Oven. Halla returned the favor that Christmas by making them a traditional Icelandic lamb dinner.

She and Darby went to Daytona Beach and Disney World on spring break. And that April, they dashed to Bloomington to see a real spectacle: The Little 500.

That visit, along with trips to Murray State to watch Darby’s brother play baseball, instilled Hala with a deep desire to go to college. That was difficult to do in Iceland at the time, so Halla continued her education in America, landing at Auburn University’s Montgomery campus.

Years later, she helped other Icelanders go to college by being part of the team that helped found Reykjavi´k University.

'I consider her like family'

Halla squeezed in multiple careers between Central and the presidency.

In 2007, she co-founded Audur Capital – an investment firm geared toward fair financial practices for women. When the global crisis hit, she was among the major players who helped steer Iceland back to solid ground. She eventually became CEO of The B Team, a global nonprofit co-founded by Richard Branson, and split her time between her home and New York.

That work, though, will be on hold while she serves as president. The job is traditionally a ceremonial one in Iceland, and comes amid a political system that’s wildly different from the U.S.

For one, Halla doesn’t belong to a political party. And her platform focuses on issues such as the effect of social media on children, the emergence of artificial intelligence, and how to bolster Iceland as a tourist destination.

As for the latter, the person she may have to work on the most is Darby.

“There have been several times that we kept saying that we were gonna go visit, but I could never imagine taking a vacation and going someplace cold,” she said. “I know tons of people who go and visit (Iceland) but I’m like, ‘If I’m going on vacation, I’m going to the beach.’”

She and her family did visit Halla when she lived in New York, and Halla has stayed in Evansville as well. Darby has pictures of the now-president of Iceland lounging on her couch during a recent Thanksgiving.

One of the most striking photos, though, is of Halla and Tomas. She came to visit while he studied here in 2018, and one thing she wanted to do was tour her former school. So they stood on the steps of Central and smiled.

Darby called Tomas’ stint here a real “full-circle moment.”

“She still calls my mom and dad ‘mom and dad,’” Darby said. “The nice thing is, with Halla, I consider her like family.”

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