Terry McAteer: Amanda Nick Wilcox are profiles in courage
February 23, 2018
"Profiles in Courage" was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1957 to then-Senator John F. Kennedy. Kennedy's work focused on highlighting courageous members of Congress who took principled stands in the face of opposing public opinion.
If I were to write a similar biography of courageous people in Nevada County, my first chapter would be dedicated to Amanda and Nick Wilcox.
Amanda and Nick have endured the greatest fear of any parent — the loss of a child. In their case, the senseless murder of their 19-year-old daughter, Laura, who was volunteering at the Nevada County Mental Health Department in 2001 during her Christmas vacation break from college.
Those of us who lived in Nevada County in 2001 vividly remember that day: schools were in lockdown mode as an active gun-toting murderer, Scott Thorpe, a mentally ill patient, was on the loose.
Many parents fail to go on with life after such a senseless loss. In fact, over 80 percent of couples divorce, unable to collectively deal with the grief. Amanda and Nick had plenty of tough times but they collectively placed their grief, anger and pain towards changing the way California treats the mentally ill in our society.
"We wanted to make an impact that could be long term," Amanda noted, as we sat chatting over breakfast at the Day Break Cafe in Penn Valley.
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Their work has revolutionized mental health treatment in this state, beginning with the enactment of "Laura's Law" (aptly named after their daughter) which provides the ability for courts to mandate outpatient mental health treatment for those in need of assistance. Today, over half of the state's population is served in counties that have implemented Laura's Law, including Nevada County. Our county and others are realizing that providing treatment services up front is cost effective and proactive.
Amanda and Nick did not rest on this one accomplishment, but have been involved in over 60 bills that have been signed into law dealing with gun violence and mental health issues. They recently focused their attention on the passage of Proposition 63, a voter approved initiative, to impose background checks on purchases of ammunition and a ban on large capacity magazine weapons in California. Taking on the gun lobby has been tough and sometimes ugly but Amanda and Nick have drawn on their Quaker roots to deal with adversity.
"We try to understand other people's issues and treat them with respect," Amanda said, describing how she has dealt with angry and vocal opposition.
Amanda was raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan attending Quaker Schools while Nick had a similar upbringing in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Their paths crossed as teachers at John Woolman Quaker School in Nevada City. They settled into life in Nevada County, raising three children who attended Ready Springs School and Nevada Union.
My own path crossed with Amanda while she served for 14 years as an elected school board trustee (10 of them as chair) on the Ready Springs School Board. Amanda helped lead the successful consolidation of Ready Springs and Pleasant Valley School Districts into the establishment of Penn Valley School District.
This call to public service also found Nick, as he was elected in 2008 as a member of the Nevada Irrigation District (NID) Board of Directors. Nick, a trained scientist, worked locally for Cranmer Engineering before joining the State Water Resources Control Board to oversee water quality operations in the Sacramento Delta. Nick felt he could assist NID with his skills in water management and delivery services. His Quaker roots of calmness in the face of adversity have been put to the test this past year, as NID looks to expand its water storage capability through the possible construction of the controversial Centennial Dam in southern Nevada County.
Amanda and Nick are environmentalists at heart. They love the South Yuba River and have been major donors and members of SYRCL (South Yuba River Citizens League) which is leading the charge against the Centennial Dam on the Bear River. Nick is obviously not a "dam lover," but the facts show that due to climate change Nevada County is facing a severe water shortage in the years to come. As a public servant, he believes it is his duty to represent the best interest of his constituents, which means exploring all possibilities for increasing water resources.
As he noted in his January editorial that appeared in The Union, "I must take a broader view, look long-term, and consider the public interest and needs of both the environment and of urban and agricultural water users within the district."
It's taken a great deal of courage for Nick to once again face into the strong winds of public opinion against the dam.
"Many refuse to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation," said Nick, from his scientist viewpoint.
Nevada County and its residents may seem to many as an idyllic community; the public servant side of Nick has also seen the ugly side of Nevada County.
"Many people have been horrible," said Nick, who admits vitriolic words from local community members have a particular sting. At that point Amanda interjected, "this has been hard for Nick, but nothing is as hard as losing Laura."
For many of us, including Amanda and Nick, when times get tough, when solace or courage is needed, we retreat to a special spot to regenerate, to contemplate, and to talk out our problems.
Laura's bench on the Buttermilk Bend Trail along the South Yuba River near Bridgeport is that spot.
If you've been to Laura's bench, you know what I'm speaking of. If you haven't, go, so you, too, can gain the insights and courage which have channeled through to Amanda and Nick Wilcox.
Terry McAteer, who lives in Grass Valley, is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His views are his own and do not represent the views of The Union or its editorial board members. Contact him at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.