Susanne B. Wilson: trailblazer, mentor and champion of SCVMC

“A real leader doesn’t really look to be one,” Susie Wilson once said.  “You just have to care enough about other people that they choose you.”

Care enough she did, because time and again, the people chose Susie Wilson; as an upstart candidate for San Jose City Council; as a forceful advocate for women’s and LGBTQ rights; as a champion for Santa Clara Valley Medical Center; and as a mentor to generations of young leaders who were inspired by her commitment to service.  Susie Wilson leaves a legacy as one of Santa Clara County’s most beloved elected officials.

A native of Texas, Susie arrived in this valley in the early 1960s.  With wit, charm and a passion for social justice, she embraced her new community.  She joined the board of the YWCA – an organization she remained committed to for the rest of her life – and began to immerse herself in the politics of a rapidly growing San Jose.  She saw a city government dominated by the few and wealthy, often at the detriment to new and emerging neighborhoods. She wanted to change that, so in 1973, she ran for San Jose City Council. Remarkably, she won, initiating a political era that made San Jose famous as the “feminist capital of the world.”

As a member of the San Jose City Council and later Vice Mayor, she championed efforts to make city government more transparent and ethical.  Most significantly, she supported a change to district-based elections for the San Jose City Council, profoundly changing the make-up of that body by bringing in representatives from all parts of the vast city.  She was also not afraid to take on issues that brought controversy, including an attempt to pass a ceremonial resolution in support of the rights of LGBTQ people.

In 1978, she was elected to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on a platform of protecting open space and improving social services. She arrived at a difficult time when budget shortfalls were leaving local governments across California in crisis. Many counties where closing their hospitals altogether, and some local leaders suggested Santa Clara County do the same.

Susie was having none of that. She understood that SCVMC was the heart of the county’s safety net and that without it, local residents would be at risk.  Saving SCVMC was the only option.   Over the next 12 years of her service on the Board of Supervisors, she devoted herself to improving hospital operations, recruiting top talent, investing in infrastructure and expanding access to more residents. Most importantly, she championed a culture of excellence and accountability within County government.  By 1990, there was no debate about closing SCVMC.  Thanks to Susie, it’s future was secure.

Susie stepped down from the Board of Supervisors in 1990 but continued in public life, immediately co-founding and joining the Board of Directors of the Valley Medical Center Foundation.  From that perch, she spent the next three decades supporting a variety of efforts to expand health services to all residents of this valley.  In recognition in of her lifetime of advocacy, the Board of Supervisors voted in 2018 to dedicate the new Women and Children’s Center at SCMVC in her honor.   Just a few short weeks later, Susie passed away at the age of 90.