Wasatch Woman of the Year is an honor given to recognize everyday women doing extraordinary things. Women keep our homes, communities and businesses strong. Wasatch women work to benefit the lives of others. This award is a platform to bring attention to the few and celebrate the greatness found in many others. Honorees for 2008 have worked in the halls of government in Washington, D.C., the humble huts of a rural Mexican village and within the walls of a bank, hospital, television studio, school and home. Their decisions on how to balance family life, work, community, health and personal loss are the issues that women face daily.
An anonymous writer once penned: “If there is light in the soul, there is beauty in the person, if there is beauty in the person, there will be harmony in the house, if there is harmony in the house, there will be order in the nation, if there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.”
Read these stories of the light found within each of our Wasatch Woman of Year honorees.
Their beauty has brought harmony to homes and communities.
Wasatch Woman of the Year
By Jill Atwood
Natalie Gochnour finds joy in seeing the people around her succeed, whether it’s watching her 16-year-old daughter dribble the ball around the soccer field or watching her staff collectively realize a vision for the rebirth of downtown Salt Lake City.
As the chief operating officer for the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, Natalie wields a lot of power, but it is not the power that drives her — it’s the ideas, the relationships and the end results that matter most to her. “You’re making a better community every day. That’s the motivating force around here,” says Natalie.
Natalie is in charge of the day-to-day operations of Utah’s largest business association, which represents 4,200 employers statewide. She admits in one breath that the position is a bit more complicated than she imagined, but in the next she’s steady as a rock planning a news conference at the capitol on immigration reform. “Our basic policy is don’t do anything that hurts our economy; move carefully,” she says. “We do need to secure our borders, we do need this workforce, let’s be sensible.”
Chalk it up to being the youngest of 11 in a family full of talented siblings. She says she had to develop a strong sense of self early to survive in a household full of high achievers.
She rushes from a meeting to make our appointment. We’re about to talk about her least favorite subject … her. Natalie’s office is spacious and comfortable with several family photos scattered among memos and to-do lists. As her phone vibrates on the desk, she asks about my 15-month-old son first thing. I immediately feel at ease. Her humility and quiet confidence are so prominent for a woman who has accomplished so much. Still, she is as down-to-earth and gabby as the next girl, once you get her going.
She admittedly doesn’t like all of this attention. It’s not a lack of self-confidence, more just unfamiliar ground for a woman that prefers the word “we” over “I” any day.
Natalie admits she is a survivor, thriving in a male-dominated field. She worked in the Utah state government for 18 years before finally realizing her ultimate dream of working in Washington, D.C. — working side-by-side with her good friend, former Governor Mike Leavitt, a man she calls extraordinary.
“I was on a ride when we went to Washington,” she recalls with a smile, her phone once again buzzing in the distance. It was a ride that would be one of the most difficult, yet spiritually enriching, experiences of her professional career.
Fresh off the high of the 2002 Winter Olympics, Natalie followed the former governor straight to Washington, D.C. She first worked for him in the office of public affairs for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and then became counselor to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In other words, she was HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt’s right-hand … woman … during an election year … (pinch me!).
Her husband and children were excited about this new adventure, and of course, were there by her side. But it soon became very clear that, while her career was soaring, her children were sinking. “A 15-hour day is for slackers in Washington.”
Her daughter Rosie missed seventh grade, and rather than hanging out with friends, she was cracking books with a tutor. Natalie made a decision right then: “The joy that it brought to my kids’ faces and to my husband to release them and come back home was something that meant something to me.”
But Natalie couldn’t return home just yet, she had a job to finish. So she commuted every weekend, lived in a studio apartment and helped her kids with homework via webcam. She reflects on that amazing time when she was alone with her thoughts so much. She knew it wouldn’t be forever and she made the conscious decision to relish this rare and fleeting moment in her life. It was okay to be okay with what she was doing, as long as she always remembered what a former mentor told her: “Leave too early rather than too late.”
“That personal calculus you have to go through to understand what works for you and knowing that if people point fingers or make judgments, or as you point fingers at yourself, that you find a way to stand your ground,” Natalie said.
Nine months later, she left D.C. behind and returned home for good to her family. Parenthood had to be her first priority. “Everything is easier in a family sense here in Utah.”
Funny stories of a messy house and trips to Souper Salad with dad told her they had all enjoyed a unique experience and were stronger for it.
Just then, her phone vibrates again. Natalie comments that it’s more than likely one of her children checking in. She is particularly close to her 12-year-old son, Theo, “a tender spirit” who is drawn to basketball and is a big Jazz fan. “The other day he called to tell me D-Will was on the 2008 PlayStation Six Pack Team … or something like that,” she laughs.
Her professional focus right now is observing and asking a lot of questions in her new position. She admits that Downtown Rising is her baby, her passion. Getting new funding for the Women’s Business Center is also in the works. “I think that the female voice is so important and we need more,” she explains.
Her personal focus lies with her family, which often consists of weekends on the slopes or taking in a Real Salt Lake game. (Did I mention she used to play right wing for the Utah Women’s Soccer Association, too?)
Her eyes light up when she speaks of her husband of 23 years. She knows she’s lucky. Chris Gochnour is a gifted furniture maker and woodworker with a spiritual side that balances out her analytical side just perfectly. Their bond is easy and forever. They’re in the process of renovating a studio for him. “A diamond in the rough,” she calls it, located in an industrial part of town. She looks forward to watching him grow and thrive there for years to come.
Her oldest daughter, Rosie, will be heading off to college soon, something Natalie says she’s having a hard time thinking about. But it’s obvious she loves watching her feisty, young teen grow into an independent young woman.
“I think that’s the purpose of a story like this, to take whatever it is that gave me that opportunity, and I don’t mean just Washington, I mean the opportunity of living this life. The kids, the furniture maker and all that — if it any way inspires or brings out the best in other women that’s worth it to me.”
It’s hard not to admire — even envy — a woman who has it all and doesn’t apologize or feel guilty for it. I asked her: “How does a woman get to that point?” half expecting to finally be given the key to some exclusive club most women don’t allow themselves to join. But it wasn’t quite that complicated. “I don’t know,” she says. “Just listen to your heart.”
By Emily Mabey
In August 2006, Jill Taylor was working hard as retail district manager of Key Bank Utah, a division that she had recently pulled from the bottom of the national rankings to become No. 1 in the nation. She had two adorable children and was nine months pregnant with her third.
Jill knew that the president of Key Bank’s Utah District was leaving and she was flattered to be asked to interview for his position. But when she went into labor on interview day, she figured it wasn’t meant to be.
Much to Jill’s surprise, she received another call to interview shortly after her baby’s birth. “I made a mad dash to the mall to buy a suit in a size I swear I’ll never buy again. I remember thinking, ‘I am so far off my A-game!'” Even in that oversize suit, with her mind more on babies than on banking, Jill was offered the job as president of the Utah District of Key Bank — while she was still on maternity leave. With a story like that, Jill says, “I personally have not felt held back by being a woman. If I’m asked this, I just say, ‘Forget it. Focus on what you can do, not the length of your hair.'”
Over a decade ago, with a degree in broadcast journalism and 18 months at home with her first child, Jill decided to go back to work as a teller. Before long, she had moved on to become an executive assistant to a banker named Vance Miller. Miller gave Jill her first big promotion to sales and service manager. He was determined to fight for Jill over more traditional candidates. “She had presence in front of people and could really think on her feet,” says Miller. “She was fresh — full of ideas and enthusiasm, and genuinely wanted to see others blossom.”
Jill says the skills that got her that first big break are the same as those she uses to run the bank. “I had to learn how to influence people, rather than saying, ‘You have to do this because I’m your boss.’ A lot of it was convincing people they really could be the best.”
At just 36 years old, Jill Taylor has now led Key Bank’s 250 Utah employees for a year and a half. She doesn’t take it for granted. “I’ve been very fortunate to be given great opportunities. I’m definitely driven, but there are people all the time who work hard and don’t get opportunities.”
Still, Jill is honest about the challenges that come with these opportunities. She says the only time she finds for exercise is running the office stairs with her assistant, Raquel. Besides the many details of running a family and a bank, Jill gives 5 to 10 hours each month to several charities, including Junior Achievement. “I love to be in the classroom with Junior Achievement, probably because I’ve got kids. That’s the fun stuff to me.”
Jill’s three kids are the details about which she worries most. How does she make it work? “I have the most amazingly supportive husband. I could not do it without him. And I get up at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning to make my kids breakfast. Often I have to leave it for them because they’re still asleep when I go.”
She doesn’t get home until 6:30 p.m. “I’ll have some dinner in the Crock-Pot, and I admit we probably do take-out two nights a week. Then I spread my work out on my kitchen table and do my homework while my kids do their homework.”
So what will Jill Taylor do for an encore? “It seems to me if I set my heart on ‘this is where I am going to be,’ that’s not where my road goes. You get very frustrated or you give up. So my mantra is, ‘Do the very best job you can and opportunities will open up that you had no idea were there.'”
By Jennifer King
It has been called cancer fatigue — an affliction with which Mary Dickson is well acquainted. Although she has recovered from the thyroid cancer she was diagnosed with in her late twenties, this new strain of cancer fatigue has resurfaced, caused by emotional hours of listening to, sobbing with and fighting for beloved friends, family members and even complete strangers stricken with the disease.
Hearing dozens and dozens of heartbreaking stories of struggle and loss has not been easy for this Salt Lake City native. One particular emotional phone call came from a mother who told the story of her three young babies succumbing to the ravages of leukemia and how her remaining children, now adults, had been diagnosed with cancer as well. After listening to this woman’s personal tragedy, Mary recalls how she went outside, sat on her porch swing and just cried, saying, “I can’t go to work today. How do I work?”
With tenacity and verve, passion and determination, emotion and vigor, Mary, who works full-time as the creative services director at KUED, continues her volunteer work and has become proof positive that one person truly can make a difference. This one woman uncovered a horrifying, deadly truth and through her relentless efforts, the gripping stories — like those of this distraught mother — have been heard in her fight to ban nuclear testing and claim compensation for downwinders who suffered from the devastating effects of those tests.
“I’m lucky because I’m really a basically cheery person,”
Mary says while chatting in the front room of her century-old Avenues home. Sometimes, however, there are those stories that just make her weep. “People go through so much and I don’t know how they do it,” she says. “You just keep on going and get their stories out and never let it happen again.”
Mary’s fight against nuclear testing has always been a personal conquest, not only because she herself is a downwinder, but because she also lost her sister Ann to the autoimmune disease lupus when she was just 46 years old. “I have an obligation. I understand and I get it,” she says of her successful quest. In fact, through her research Mary discovered that some 54 people in her Salt Lake neighborhood had contracted cancer or other autoimmune diseases, all directly linked to fallout from years of nuclear testing in the Nevada desert.
As a lifelong lover of the arts, Mary channeled all those emotional stories — both personal and those of others with whom she had become personally acquainted — into “Exposed,” a poignant play produced in Salt Lake City by Plan-B Theatre Company. The production, which received international attention and accolades, is primarily the story of Mary and Ann with vignettes of other cancer-stricken souls woven in the dramatic, emotional play.
Mary related how she was once told: Writing is easy — you just cut open your veins and bleed. “I bled all over those pages. … It is basically my story,” she says. It started as a series of monologues of other people, but eventually became a collection of her own stories.
After sold-out audiences during the show’s run last fall, Mary is gearing up to travel the play around, spreading its message along the way. With an agent in New York City, she is looking at grand possibilities.
For all the tireless hours she has spent, and continues to spend, fighting nuclear testing and assisting downwinders, this is not the only community cause close to Mary’s heart. A true arts patron, she is an active member on many arts boards, including Salt Lake Acting Company and Plan-B Theatre Company.
Discovering that her passion is also found within issues of peace and justice, she can often be found contributing her time and resources to dozens of nonprofit groups, most recently joining Rocky Anderson’s High Road to Human Rights organization. “The nonprofit world is very strong here … just part of the culture of watching out for each other,” she says, noting that that is a philosophy that was ingrained in her from a young age. “My dad always said you should be of use and have a good time doing it,” she says. “It’s all about good citizenship. I’ve always felt that you do what you can. I’m just firmly committed to that.”
By Christy Shepherd
When the world tells you to give up, hope whispers: “Try it one more time.” When Francis “Paquita” Lopez lost her son David to a brain tumor, she thought the world had come to an end. She didn’t quite know how to cope and she withdrew from her friends and family for a while. She said that at the time of David’s passing, she thought, “When you bury your parents, you bury your past. But when you bury a child, you bury your future.” And after the death of her son, Paquita felt her future was bleak.
But through service, perseverance and hope, Paquita eventually found a new meaning for her future. Soon after David’s death, a friend introduced her to the Compassionate Friends group, which is a support group for parents who have lost children. Paquita became involved in the group and found that she wasn’t alone in her grief.
Not only was she not alone, but she saw a great need around her. “I saw so many other parents who needed help. And I realized that I could help them,” she said. Since then, Paquita made the choice to focus on helping others by sharing herself and serving in whatever way she can to help make other people’s lives easier.
Josie Valdez, Paquita’s longtime friend, said that through these venues for service, Paquita was able to find new energy and interest to replace the sadness and emptiness she experienced after the loss of her son.
Providing service for others was an avenue for rededication and purpose. “We found that she grew stronger and became herself again,” Josie said.
However, the loss of her son was only the beginning of Paquita’s challenges. Shortly after David’s death, Paquita’s daughter Christina was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease and passed away. A few years later, the disease also took her oldest son, John.
But Paquita didn’t give up her hope for happiness and continued to reach out. She relied on her faith in God to help get her through and looked to Job from the Bible as her example and inspiration. “Even after all that Job went through, he never lost faith or hope. I wanted to be like that,” she said.
Paquita’s willingness to stay involved and share her story is an inspiration to others who have experienced similar situations. When others see and hear her positive outlook, they are able to see the light and hope at the end of the tunnel — and that helps lighten the grieving process.
Through her increased involvement and leadership in Compassionate Friends, Paquita provides a place for parents to come and talk about their losses with others who are willing to listen and who understand what they are going through. “Sometimes you just need someone to be there for you and listen to you,” she said. The group hosts up to 80 families each month.
Paquita not only stayed involved with Compassionate Friends, but also got involved in the community through the Mujeres Latinas club — an organization that helps needy families, teen parents and students. “I keep serving because I see people who need help. I want to give hope to others the same way I have gained hope in spite of the hard things that have happened,” she explained.
Even though Paquita has lost three of her own children, she has become like a mother and grandmother to many. Through the Save a Child Foundation, she takes in orphans waiting to be adopted and gives them a home and some love while they wait for a family. She said that caring for others helps relieve some of the pain of losing her own children.
Paquita believes that the reason she has been able to overcome the trials in her life is because of her attitude. “You always have a choice. You can choose to focus on what you have or you can choose to focus on what you’ve lost. And I choose to focus on the positive,” she says. “There are a lot of happy things in my life. I have my friends and my family. I have a lot of love I can give to others and a lot of hope for happiness.”
Today, Paquita enjoys her husband, Wilbert; her son, Michael; and her grandson. She is also excited to welcome another grandchild into the world in March. She takes pleasure in being involved in the community by helping others and loves to spend time with her friends and family.
Paquita has a great capacity to motivate other women and make them stronger through her quiet example, love and dedication. Her willingness to listen, provide encouragement and think positively has had an incredible effect on those around her. She truly is a hidden treasure and example of one who rises above life’s circumstances with great perseverance.
By Barbara Vineyard
On Main Street in Centerville there sits a church-turned-house. But this is no ordinary house. This is a gathering place, a learning place, a celebrating place. Community members arrive at its doors for preschool, for dance class, for choir rehearsal, for wedding ceremonies and receptions, for music recitals, for dinners and dances, for dodge ball tournaments and for laser-tag games. And at the heart of this hubbub is one mom who has made this house a home.
Marcia Anderson was born in 1949 (although she’ll tell you it was 1950; who wants to admit they were born in the ’40s?) She was raised in Boise, Idaho — the oldest sibling and only daughter in a house full of boys. Her mother subscribed to what Marcia calls “the old school” and left rule-making and decisions up to Marcia’s father. This bothered Marcia. “I never quite fit in. I always knew I was just as important as anybody in the world. I never played into [the idea of the] ‘Leave it to Beaver’ housewife. I just always knew that everyone was created equally and that God loves us all the same.”
Even so, speaking her mind didn’t come easy. “I was so shy. I went 30 miles up the road [for Girl’s State and] I cried myself to sleep because I was so shy. I played in the band. I’m a flautist. I didn’t have to talk because I just played my instrument.”
All that began to change when a chain-smoking school counselor got a hold of her ACT scores. Marcia planned to attend Boise College — because that’s where her father wanted her to go and she always did what her father asked. With a 3.9 GPA and high ACT scores, the counselor wasn’t settling for “good ‘ol Boise College.” The counselor pushed for Marcia to submit her scores to BYU, and she finally agreed. “I had a chance to go to BYU and it changed my life. Little by little I learned to speak for myself.”
While at BYU, Marcia studied early childhood education. She was advised that she needed “to major in something you can do something with,” but her greatest desire was to be a mom. “One day I was running down the hill and it just came to me that the only thing I wanted to do was be the best mom in the world. And everything else was secondary.”
That opportunity came a few years later. While doing her student-teaching in Salt Lake City, she met Dan Anderson. They were married in 1970 and had their first son, Mark, in 1971. Over the next nine years they had three more boys (James, Taylor and Davin) and finally in 1980, a little, red-headed girl, SalliJune.
At home, Marcia taught the children to speak their mind, to think for themselves, to love each other and to love God. Her life was pure devotion and their home was one of learning — learning that was soon extended to other children in the community.
It started with a vocal group, The Gingerbread Kids, that Marcia founded to help her three boys at the time learn to enjoy music and “express it with energy and zest.” Then, in 1981, she started a preschool in Providence, Utah. “I had a 3-year-old and nobody could love him the way I could. So, I started my preschool to become his teacher,” Marcia explained.
In 1983, Dan bought the church in Centerville and told Marcia, “You can have your singing groups here. And you can have your preschool here.” Though perhaps not thrilled, Marcia saw the potential. “I never would have worked a day away from home. This is on such a grand scale, because [this] is home. And home always came first and my kids came first. And, they knew I’d be here every time after school. And, they knew I was always up. They knew I was never anywhere when they were expected home.”
Today, the Anderson children — all grown up with families of their own — will admit it was building a house out of a decrepit, old church, and their mom, who made them who they are today. They don’t stand alone. There are over 4,000 others who have learned at Marcia’s knee, who echo the same sentiment in a song written by her son Taylor, “All I am and all I hope to be, began with your love for me.”
Up & Coming
By Allison Hansen
Merrit Denison has done more to change the world in her adolescence than most could imagine in a lifetime.
The 18-year-old is a Bingham High School senior who is headed to Brigham Young University this fall to double major in sociology and Latin American studies. She is a humble overachiever, a member of the Key Club and National Honor Society. U2 is her favorite band; she says their song “Beautiful Day” gets her “jazzed.” She is a beautiful, wholesome blonde … when she smiles, her teeth practically sparkle. And, oh yeah, she is setting up a microenterprise program in an impoverished Mexican village.
“Microenterprise,” Merrit explains, “is giving people the power to do it themselves.” In simple terms, her type of work involves lending very small amounts of money for little interest to start-up businesses.
This is her passion, the one she could talk to strangers about for hours. After a humanitarian trip in 2005 to Peru with a Utah organization called YouthLINC, the director offered Merrit the opportunity for a longer-term project. Merrit had already been voraciously researching online for a way to serve internationally on a larger scale. She excitedly agreed to participate with a small, diverse group. When she showed up, she was unexpectedly teamed up with older college students and working professionals.
“I was in over my head,” she admits. “I felt like everyone was looking at me and wondering, ‘What is this 17-year-old doing?'” But it did not discourage her; it made her determined to prove herself. “I researched it like crazy.” She also helped write business lessons and translate them, using skills from the Spanish classes she has taken since seventh grade.
Last summer, Merrit went with the group to Ocotlan, Mexico. At first, she was overwhelmed with the living conditions. “A lot of them are single mothers and have a ton of kids they have to take care of. They live in houses made of literally things they’ve found off the side of the road.”
She and her team hooked up with a local organization, El Grupo Puente, to find a group of women who were learning to sew in order to create businesses to provide for their families. “We met with them in their houses, met their families, and got to know the really personal side of who they were and where they were coming from,” Merrit says. “That, to me, was really the best part of doing the project. It helped me to realize we can really make a difference in these women’s lives.”
The mission was met with some complications. When they arrived in the country, the women were not ready to sell their wares; they were still learning to use the modern sewing machines. They also weren’t ready for the business lessons. “We didn’t know what their education level was. The majority of them were illiterate and didn’t have basic math skills. Some of the lessons were way over their heads.”
Still, by the time Merrit left Mexico last year, the women had a classroom set of sewing machines for their training. The business models she wrote were left there as study guides. This June, she will return with her group to check in on the women. Hopefully, they will grant more loans and help the women establish viable businesses.
Merrit’s mother, Angie, nominated her for the Wasatch Woman Award because, in her words: “She has a vision for her future and it includes helping people. That type of person deserves to be recognized.” Angie says her daughter, the oldest of her three girls, has always had the desire to make a difference, from simple tasks at home to her more recent global efforts. “To me, she is an extraordinary young woman that embodies the great qualities of somebody who is up and coming.”
“It is easy to look at the world today and say we have so many problems. It can get overwhelming trying to come up with solutions,” Merrit says. “(I want to be) that person that is willing to go out there and do everything within my power to make a difference. You can’t solve every problem all the time, but you can do your part. When you see individual people make a change, it makes it all worth it.”
As Merrit talks about global issues and business models, she handles herself like a grown adult. It is easy to forget she is still a teen until the conversation turns to high-schoolish things like boys, which makes her face turn crimson. She admits she has a crush (reporter’s note: I’ve crossed my heart and promised not to reveal his name), “but he doesn’t know I exist,” she says. That is impossible to believe.