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From archives Dec. 14, 2009: Wilkie to turn over reins of influential foundation

This is an article published by the Fort Worth Business Press in 2009 about Valleau Wilkie Jr. Dates have not been  updated in the story.

BETTY DILLARD Several years ago when Valleau Wilkie Jr.’s family persuaded him to finally pen his memoir of World War II experiences including recollections of being a prisoner of war in Germany, he did what comes naturally to him.

Wilkie , now 86, described his memories in an easy, casual, no-nonsense style, each story shared as if the reader is sitting with him in close conversation beside the fireplace.

That calm, friendly, fireside-chat approach has served Wilkie well in a distinguished career that includes leadership positions in education, with foundations and in civic organizations. Shaped by the Great Depression and the Second World War as were others of his Great Generation, and influenced by his father who was a headmaster and teacher, Wilkie changed his plans of becoming a doctor when he re-entered Yale University after the war. He also became an educator although he said growing up, “I was determined that the one thing I was not going to do was to become a teacher.”

A native of New Jersey, Wilkie taught history and coached sports at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., from 1948 to 1959, and was headmaster of the Governor’s Academy in Byfield, Mass., from 1959 to 1973 when he moved to Fort Worth. Since then, he has served as executive vice president of the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, dedicated to helping others less fortunate through the foundation’s diverse charitable programs.

“ Val and the Sid Richardson Foundation are synonymous,” said Mayor Mike Moncrief. “You never hear one without the other. They have both done so much for so long for so many.”

Recently, Wilkie has been honored by several organizations for his almost 40 years of local community service. He received the University of North Texas Health Science Center’s Vision Award, the Volunteers of America Texas Legends Award and Meals on Wheels Inc. of Tarrant County’s first Spirit of Giving Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his philanthropic leadership that the organization said over time has provided significant positive impact to the wellbeing of the community.

You’ve been called a leader’s leader. What are some qualities of an effective leader?

I think mainly listening and being informed and being willing to work with rather than being a commanding general. I’ve been involved in asking people to take leadership roles…I like to get them talking about it and helping them to see they need to take an active part in leadership. Our biggest challenge is leadership in education – that’s my passion, of course. The key is finding someone with an interest in taking a leadership role and sitting down and talking with them and hearing what they have to say, not trying to place your thoughts in their head but to see how they feel about certain issues, how they react to certain situations and their record in working with people. Leadership has to involve working with others and not just giving orders.

That points out something significant. There has been a lot of talk about my role as a mentor for a lot of organizations and individual people. I was asked recently by somebody how it was that I have this ability to be a mentor. Actually, it was a very natural thing because of the nature of the way in which I taught. I taught in a very interactive way. In that day and age, a great deal of teaching, particularly at the secondary level, was the lecture approach. There wasn’t a lot of thinking about things. I didn’t get up and lecture to my history students. I got up and raised some issues and then spent the class period discussing those issues. It was an interactive kind of process exchanging information and ideas. In a sense, I guess I was ahead of my time with the reasoning and arguing and learning together. I didn’t learn it but it made sense to me to teach that way.

My natural way here is to deal with the people who come to talk to me in that same manner, i.e. listening. Whenever anyone talks about courses or programs on communications they always talk about reading, writing and speaking. I say, what about listening? It’s the most important part of communication but no one considers it. I do a lot of listening whether it’s for a specific grant request or not. A lot of times people want to discuss a project or a plan without having to ask for grant funding and I always tell them to come in to talk to me. I do what amounts to a lot of counseling or mentoring, if you like. I’m very comfortable in that role and that’s what I’m most noted for – not just dispensing money but working with people and giving advice to their problems. I am one who relies on that personal relationship more than I do on the paperwork. I rely more on my sense of the people: what is their feeling of their mission, what is it they are really committed to, can they perform their mission?

There has been some concern that there may not be a next generation of leaders. How can we encourage, inspire and nurture the next generation?

We have to proceed in our efforts to strengthen the field of education. Education leads to understanding conditions in the community and city governments have to be involved and encourage this. I think the whole development of a neighborhood organization provides a base for people emerging into stronger leadership in the community. Education provides that base for leadership. Neighborhoods take the responsibility for a lot of the needs in their neighborhoods and that requires strong leadership. The leadership program we have [Leadership Fort Worth] is a very important part of our progress, and that involves training leaders in all parts of the community, not just in nonprofits.

What changes have you seen in the nonprofit world?

The biggest change is collaboration. People back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s would come in here and there would be different groups doing the same work. There was a lot of repetition. Obviously, if two or three of these work together you do a better job rather than just working individually. More than just the financial savings, collaboration just does the job better when you have two or more agencies working together.

Cooperation/collaboration is a great advantage for education but also for human service organizations. It helps the quality of the overall program. Take health care, for example. The clinic at the Union Gospel Mission keeps people out of emergency rooms. That’s an example of the benefits to coming together that wouldn’t have been thought of 10 or 12 years ago. There are some good examples, too, of total mergers between organizations, a trend that has been happening more often. SafeHaven [of Tarrant County] is a total merger and a dramatic example that’s really benefitted their programs. That’s a huge change.

What matters the most to you when you’re looking to fund a group or an individual?

First of all, they’ve got to come and talk about an issue that needs to be addressed. What is it they want to accomplish? It can’t be just a nice idea that a group of people had sitting around chatting. They have to explore the nature of the problem and develop a plan. They obviously then have got to seriously look at what it will take of the organization – the people, what kind of money is needed – to make it a realistic, doable approach to the resolution of the problem or need of the group.

That often leads to when people come to see me to help them find the money. I would never bring an agenda here without having visited the location and talking to the group. Do they have the right kind of personnel? Is there leadership? As a whole, can this organization support and sustain a project? How do they see themselves developing the other funding in case we do support them? What is the plan to carry that out? They have to build a strong case.

We ask for yearly reports to see how they are progressing and how a plan is being sustained, and we evaluate the people involved. Good financial information is needed, of course, but mainly I look to see if the people involved are determined enough to do it and really make a difference. To me, it’s a people business.

What are the greatest needs in our area today?

Education is still the greatest need here. We’ve got to get the quality of education for every youngster from every background and so far we’re still having trouble doing that.

We’re getting there by establishing pathways to a diploma such as the Early College High School program, which has expanded here to Fort Worth… If we’re going to deal with the dropout issue, we’ve got to offer career opportunities and excitement and interest. But it involves a change in attitude.

A lot of people think teaching is a third-rate profession and discourage able kids from going into teaching. We’ve got to change that to the point where they feel teaching is one of the highest – I would say the strongest – professions because all the other professions depend on it. Teaching, engineering, law, medicine – they’re all on the same plane, I think.

Universities need to be actively back in the teaching business and I’m asking that teaching be made a top priority again. As I’m talking to people about this I don’t get a disagreement on the concept. I’m really devoted not only to teaching and seeing good teachers come out of our universities but also in involving the community into making that happen.

The recession of the last two years has been tough on nonprofits. What does the nonprofit landscape look like for 2010?

My impression on this, and I’m not an economist, I think we’re going to continue on a level of improvement in 2010. I think there will be enough change in the population to feel inclined to get back into a giving mode. The financial side, the economic side, isn’t going to collapse again. I think we’ll see gradual growth. I’m always an optimist. I’m optimistic that we’ll see a continual improvement. I think it’s overall a better picture for 2010. I hope we’ve learned some lessons through all of this that can carry into 2011 and beyond.

How would you like to be remembered most?

I guess I’ve made a difference in the lives of others and I’ll allow people to say that about me. I like to think I have helped a lot of people. I would like to have made some difference, particularly in the lives of young people through educational programs and other programs that give them opportunities to move up the ladder to successful lives. That’s been my objective. I love my work.  

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Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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