By Wade Coggeshall
— In her words, Suzanne Whicker learned early on that "I was not built to be a 1960s housewife and just stay home all the time."
Born and raised in the Danville area, where she still lives, Whicker graduated from Indiana Business College (now Harrison College) with a degree in accounting and secretarial work. Other than that, the only other professions women could easily break into at the time were teaching and nursing. Like many of her peers, Whicker got married young and had children (three boys for her). Two of them were born 13 months apart. Whicker isn't afraid to admit, now at least, that she thought she was going to lose her mind just being a homemaker.
So she started selling Tupperware.
"My husband and I decided this was the way I could get out and do adult stuff in the evening when he could be with the kids," Whicker said.
She did that for about 20 years, eventually taking a management position with the company. One time they offered their female employees a free workshop showing them the appropriate colors to wear. Whicker was skeptical, having been a longtime 4-Her who sewed her own clothes. Yet she learned so much she got trained to do the same thing.
"I loved every minute of it," Whicker said.
She later met a woman who sold cosmetics. Whicker would steer clients toward her, and eventually started selling it herself instead of Tupperware.
"Once I did, I thought, 'Why didn't I do this sooner?'" Whicker said.
After that, Whicker was trying to start a business with a friend called Total Dimensions. It sold the whole package: clothes, makeup, jewelry. The only problem was they discovered they weren't good at marketing themselves.
That's when Whicker attended a workshop comprised of prominent people from Hendricks County. The goal of the gathering was to train county leaders at being better at what they do, to help the county overall. They called it Leadership Hendricks County.
Whicker was hooked, particularly with the tagline they used about raising grandchildren in a community just as good, if not better, than the one you grew up in. Whicker was a grandmother by then, and has nine grandchildren now. She submitted an application and was accepted into the first class in 1993.
Just like today, LHC meets once a month for a year.
"I'd come home every night and say, 'Did you know you could do this in Hendricks County? Did you know that? This is such a great program. I hope it makes it,'" Whicker said.
Gary Emsweller originally ran the program, since it came from Purdue Extension and he was director of the Hendricks County office. Initially, LHC was only meant to teach the public about agriculture, but it was expanded to include other important facets like government, education, business, and the judicial system. Leaders from each were willing to participate and teach their expertise.
"It kind of fell together with a lot of coordination from the extension office," Whicker said.
It was such a success that Emsweller couldn't keep up with it, along with his other duties. It was decided that a part-time coordinator was needed. Since Whicker was a native of Hendricks County and knew so many in the community, that first class nominated her for the job. She was honored.
"I thought this program was so cool," she said. "It really needs to survive."
Having already gone through the program, she had her own ideas of what to incorporate. However, Whicker quickly discovered the job was full-time. Even though her children were grown by then, she knew it would take more than what she could offer to make Leadership a success.
"I realized I had to pull in a lot of people," Whicker said.
A board of directors was formed. More than 120 people have served on it since, and Whicker says they've always been lucky to have the right person at the right time when the program needed change.
"It was never all about me - ever," she said. "I always got the glory because I was always the one out front. But I always had a good board of directors."
Early on, LHC was so popular that the class size kept expanding. It was getting tougher to eliminate applicants because they were all worthy. It's been capped at 25 because Whicker believes more than that changes the dynamics in an adverse way.
The goal with each class has always been to find a good mix of people with varying backgrounds, be it different industries and business size. Each class gets to know one another as well as how the county works as a whole.
Projects that reflect individuals' passions - and also help the community - are part of the curriculum as well. Many have turned into entities that are still with us, including Sheltering Wings and the Hendricks County Arts Council and its gallery on the Danville Courthouse Square.
Whicker remembers Susie Friend, United Way's Hendricks County coordinator, relaying how she'd be in meetings with counterparts in other counties and they'd stress about needing more community outreach.
"She'd talk about sitting there and saying, 'We already do those sorts of things in Hendricks County,'" Whicker said.
A continual problem for them was that leaders in neighboring communities wouldn't work well together for varying reasons.
"It finally started to dawn on us that it was because of the Leadership program (that we don't have that problem as much)," Whicker said.
Later LHC expanded to include a youth component. Sophomores from the county's high schools were brought together to learn teamwork. Whicker was trained in another program identifying people's personalities based on colors to teach better camaraderie. She noticed colors are a running trend with her and started yet another business, Colors With Suzanne, that combines all that aforementioned training.
"I can put it all together," Whicker said.
She had already done that for almost 20 years with Leadership - putting the right people together and emphasizing how each is a piece of the puzzle to the county's success. Whicker says the results of LHC over the years have proven that the program works.
"It's been like a spider web," she said. "We have over 400 graduates, and they took what they gained that year and went back to where they came from as a much better asset. They're now a better resource. If you multiply that by 400, you have a much better connected county. All of them are willing to talk with another Leadership graduate. It's a fraternity, a sense of belonging and responsibility to each other."
That extends to town government.
"Even though there's some squabbling that goes on, in the long run they figure out that collaborating is a better idea than fighting with each other," Whicker said. "We are all still Hendricks County."
She was initially concerned that LHC wouldn't find a suitable replacement when she announced her retirement last year. After all, it's a full-time job in a part-time position. Fortunately, they got Susan Rozzi, who had served as associate director of the Hendricks County Community Foundation since 2006.
"Susan's just a great asset," Whicker said. "I'm not saying she's going to be great, because she already is. She's got the passion for it."
As for her time helming Leadership, Whicker is humbled by the experience.
"I was in the right place at the right time," she said. "I'm extremely proud of what the program has done."