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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

United They Stand

For the Wilcoxs, Charity Truly Begins at Home--in a Shared Zeal for Bettering Their Community

December 01, 1996|STEVE EMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Few couples are as united as Maria and Jeff Wilcox. Their lives, individually and together, are molded around the United Way.

They met at a United Way retreat. They hurried up their wedding and postponed their honeymoon to accommodate the United Way's fund-raising schedule.

From the beginning 12 years ago in Seattle, they worked in the same United Way offices until this year, when Maria took over leadership of the United Way in Orange County and Jeff became a senior vice president for the United Way in Los Angeles.

Their jobs require so much time that days can pass before they see one another. Often, they send each other greeting cards on special occasions, promising to celebrate them at a more convenient time.

They have not postponed having children; they've ruled it out altogether. They see the United Way as their life's work, a way of life too absorbing to leave them the time they know it would take to be proper parents.

"I've been in United Way for 24 years," says Joe Haggerty, president of United Way in Los Angeles. "I've seen what happens when a spouse doesn't understand the time demands of the job. It's hard for some partners to get the point, even to see why their spouse would want to do it."

Not a problem in the Wilcox marriage, both say. Subjugating their personal lives to their vocations has not caused the usual marital stress, Jeff says, because "We understand the pressures of each other's work all too well. There's a real empathy there. It's a healthy aspect of our relationship.

"We do have to plan out our time together, but I get the pleasure of having to call my wife and ask her for dates. And I get love letters."

Jeff Wilcox had come to Seattle from his small-town birthplace, Madrid, Iowa, where his father and mother had bought the Register-News, a weekly newspaper, circulation 750. Their four children helped out, and three remain in Madrid running the newspaper they inherited.

But Jeff, the youngest, wanted to leave home. He attended Seattle Pacific University, where he obtained degrees in communications and marketing and wound up hiring on with the United Way in Seattle in 1984.

Maria Chavez had been on the United Way staff for several months by that time. She had arrived there through a roundabout path, having fled Peru at age 11 with her family, then going on to graduate with honors from Boston University and land in Seattle as a United Way staff fund-raiser.

What happened then was a fortunate mistake.

They met at a United Way gathering, where Maria assumed this newcomer was a volunteer, one of the heavy hitters United Way recruits from corporations and other organizations to help drum up support.

"So I was going to take care of him, make sure he had everything he needed, a place to sit, all this other stuff," she says.

From 25-year-old Jeff's point of view, however, an attractive, 27-year-old fellow worker was paying special attention to him, and he responded.

The next day, they had lunch on the waterfront. Three months later, they married.

"Want to know the real story of why it was so quick?" Maria asks.

"He proposed to me, and he wanted to get married after the first of the year. And I said, 'I can't. If I don't get married before September, you don't get me until next March. I've got to run a United Way campaign.' And he said OK, so we got married in August."

They married on a weekend and were back to work Monday morning. They honeymooned for a week in March--after the campaign ended and the next one started. "It wasn't very romantic, but it was what we needed to do," Maria says.

The couple worked together in Seattle until 1988, when they both took jobs with United Way in Phoenix, he to act as liaison with charities that received United Way funds, she to do the least popular of United Way assignments: passing the hat.

It was there that Maria made her reputation as something of a miracle worker. During her 8-year tenure as senior vice president for fund-raising, donations rose nearly 50%.

Haggerty, her boss in Phoenix, was lured away in May 1995 to Los Angeles.

L.A.'s United Way was in trouble.

It had survived bad headlines in 1986, when news broke that several executives had been given personal loans of United Way funds. But in the '90s, the local economy declined, and in 1992, the United Way's national president, William Aramony, was accused of financing a lavish lifestyle with funds from the national United Way treasury. That year, revenue in the Los Angeles area fell by $20 million.

By 1995, donations were down for the fifth straight year and the board hired Haggerty. In his first year, pledges increased by $1 million.

Haggerty soon approached his former aides, the Wilcoxs, to ask whether they would join him.

But Orange County, in much the same sort of revenue swoon, was also seeking help. It wanted Maria, the ace fund-raiser, to take over its operation.

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