Coming from a small town in Ohio, 2014 Spirit of Vassar Award recipient Leah Johnson Wilcox ’69 says she didn’t know what to expect when she first arrived at campus so many years ago.
What she found was a spirit of volunteerism that has stayed with her, beginning her freshman year and continuing to this day.
“Literally, it changed the trajectory of my life. I grew up in a factory/farm town where the few kids that did go to college stayed in the state of Ohio. I had resistance, even from my guidance counselor, to apply out of state,” Wilcox says. “The civic involvement, the social involvement, social justice; all of those concepts were formed for me while I was at Vassar.”
To those who know Wilcox, it’s not a surprise that she’s being honored with an award that celebrates individuals and groups whose volunteer efforts exemplify an enduring spirit of community and caring. AAVC President Geraldine Bond Laybourne ’69 says her classmate began volunteering as a freshman and hasn’t stopped.
“The Spirit of Vassar Award is given to an individual whose volunteer efforts exemplify an enduring spirit of community and caring. This year’s recipient truly exemplifies those qualities,” says Laybourne. “When Leah Johnson Wilcox sees something that needs doing, she does it. The Hudson Valley is better for it and so is the world.”
Wilcox’s volunteer work includes the Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College (AAVC) Board of Directors, class president (1982–88), reunion chair for her class’s 13th and 25th reunions, and admission interviewer, among others. While on the AAVC Board, Wilcox chaired the admission and bylaws committees, was a member of the executive director search committee, and helped develop the board’s strategic plan.
“It’s who I am. I am constantly overcommitted. It must be the way I like it,” Wilcox says.
In addition to volunteering at Vassar, Wilcox serves on various municipal boards near her home in Ancram, including the town’s Board of Assessment Review, Zoning Board of Appeals, and Comprehensive Planning Committee.
“Learning new things has always been a motivation for me and has always been very rewarding. I could never learn to be a brain surgeon, but I certainly could learn land use. I certainly could learn the skills and requirements for the positions I’ve assumed,” Wilcox says.
Wilcox has long been one to create opportunity for herself. A math major, she started her career in banking at the National Bank of Boston.
In an age when most women started out as administrative assistants, Wilcox was chosen as one of the first women to go though the credit training program at the First National Bank of Boston and one of the first to become a lending officer. She rose to the level of assistant vice president at the bank before securing a position at Chemical Bank in New York City. After taking a few years off to enjoy raising her children, she worked as manager of finance and human resources for her husband Bob’s marketing and communications company, which the couple later sold.
Her volunteer work continued through the years; she served as president of her block association, and was a member of the Parent Teacher Association and a classroom volunteer.
“Community is important to me, and when one is part of a community she can be either a bystander or an engaged participant. I prefer to be involved,” Wilcox says. “And there are rewards to me for being involved: I meet new people, acquire new knowledge, am energized by the challenge, have a sense of accomplishment, and many times have fun.”
As for her work at Vassar, she says it’s been a pleasure, giving her an opportunity to work with amazing people and meet and reconnect with fellow alumnae/i. Her surprise for the award hasn’t waned in the weeks that have passed since she first learned of the honor.
“The surprise and disbelief of being selected for the Spirit award still lingers. There are so many worthy alums who give so much of themselves, that I am truly honored and humbled to think the committee chose me,” Wilcox says.
—Photos © Vassar College-Stockton Photo Inc.