With a girlish belly laugh, she sounds half her age. But make no mistake: Colleen Wilcox draws from decades of experience in energizing Santa Clara County's 1,600-staff members in a system of 32 high- and low-income K-14 and community college districts.
In her early years, silenced by a stutter that left her able to link only three or four words at once, Wilcox expressed herself by drawing. Through 12 years of stuttering therapy, her glass-half-full attitude was ever-present. "The best way not to focus on your own glass is to fill someone else's," she says.
So Wilcox has dedicated 33 years to helping others with speech and language disabilities, first as a speech pathologist, then as a Peace Corps volunteer teacher in Guatemala helping children (in Spanish, no less) to overcome their stutters, and now in administration. Following the advice of the Harold Arlon/Johnny Mercer song, Wilcox's success proves she knows how to 'Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.' "
In fact, she has developed a reputation as one of California's poster children for public speaking. "A lot of my success is not because I am naturally gifted. It's probably just that I work harder than others," she says.
Lessons learned are now taught
Growing up in Illinois, Wilcox's exuberant older sister garnered all the attention. Her solution: "When my sister would be chattering, I'd draw a little picture and shove it in someone's face!" So began a passion for the arts that has permeated Wilcox's career. Under her watch, the county developed arts standards and curriculum. When cutbacks threatened programs, she sought financial help locally, and elementary art programs were restored. The superintendent's office, meanwhile, has become a gallery for hundreds of original student art pieces.
Some jobs are easier than others
Closing the per-pupil spending gap in Santa Clara County compared to elsewhere is another priority. Wilcox has promoted a county-wide parcel tax and implemented mentoring programs provided by businesses such as Intel.
A familiar name in education
Google "Colleen Wilcox" online. You'll get many sites proffering her prolific quotes, especially: "Teaching is the greatest act of optimism." (She's not sure why that one stuck.) Yet her favorite quote is Eleanor Roosevelt's: "You must do the thing you think you cannot do." It has helped in public speaking and other challenges.
About that laugh....
Dennis Cima, Wilcox's former assistant and now director of education at Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group, is quick to share tales of both her accomplishments and presence.
"Colleen was traveling to a conference and we ... were trying our darndest to get a hold of her," he recalls. A cell phone call didn't work, so a staffer rang the front desk of her hotel.
No one knew if she'd checked in. "My colleague then said to the concierge, 'Take a look around the lobby: Is there someone with brown hair with a loud, joyful, boisterous laugh?" Moments later, Wilcox's voice was on the line.
Jennifer Elise Chase is a freelance writer based in Boston, Mass.