In his 18 years as executive director of the Valley Medical Center Foundation, Chris Wilder was known as a nonprofit superhero, a leader whose ability to raise money and get projects done made him seem like a force of nature. Ten months following a massive stroke, Wilder will be putting that force toward his own recovery as he stepped down from his job this week.
“This is not the way I intended to retire, but I’m confident the keys are in the right hands. We’ve got a great team,” said Wilder, 54, who had been on medical leave since his stroke in March 2021. “While it’s a lot of work trying to improve, I’m going to fight every day. It’s a full-time job now.”
Wilder will be succeeded by Michael Elliott, who has been with the VMC Foundation since 2007 and has served as acting executive director since March. He’s known Wilder since 1999 when they were both at City Year and considers it “humbling” to step into Wilder’s shoes.
“It’s impossible to replace Chris Wilder because no one can do that,” he said. “But every day there are decisions I’m making where I’m leaning on the example that Chris set. That was his best superpower. He made people believe in themselves and be their best selves.”
Wilder came to the VMC Foundation from City Year in 2004, when the organization was in less than optimal shape. With no full-time staff, it had raised just $100,000 the previous year. In his first two years, Wilder led two huge capital campaigns for the Parisi House on the Hill in Gilroy and to buy a linear accelerator for the Sobrato Cancer Center at VMC. His leadership skills caught a lot of attention, and in 2008, he was a driving force behind the campaign for Measure A, which generated $840 million to build VMC’s Sobrato Pavilion, as well as a downtown San Jose health center.
During Wilder’s tenure, the VMC Foundation brought in more than $100 million for Santa Clara County’s public healthcare system, and much of that was due to Wilder’s relationships with people like developer and philanthropist John A. Sobrato and Carl Guardino, the former Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO and current Bloom Energy vice president. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the foundation secured more than $25 million in funds, PPE and other equipment for frontline workers.
A VMC Foundation announcement included praise for Wilder from Sobrato, as well as Mike Wasserman, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors; Dr. Phuong Nguyen, Valley Medical Center’s chief medical officer; and Dr. Dennis Low, a retired VMC doctor and chair of the VMC Foundation’s board. And that’s just a small fraction of the fans he had among Silicon Valley’s nonprofit sector, where his cheerful personality towered as much as his stature.
Wilder’s stroke provided him with a new perspective on the work he had done, too, as for six months following his stroke he was a patient at VMC’s Rehabilitation Center, one of the many hospital units the foundation had raised money to support.
“I’ve just been proud for so many years to be just a small player in this gigantic county health system — and I never really wanted to experience getting care here firsthand — but the minute I was able to be cognizant of what was happening, I knew I was in the right place,” he said. “I’m proud to have gotten care in the best brain injury rehab center in the Bay Area and maybe even in the country.”
His recovery has been slow and difficult, both physically and mentally. When I asked him his age and assured him it wasn’t a memory test, he said, “Everything is a memory test now.” He described it like an earthquake knocking over all the bookshelves in his brain, with a cleaning crew coming in and putting the books back in random order. Part of his days are spent putting the books in his mind back in their proper place.
He said he was recently listening to a Frank Sinatra song and couldn’t remember the name of one of Sinatra’s Rat Pack cronies, Joey Bishop. He relayed the story to his friend and fellow jazz lover Michael Jacobi, who joked, “If you’re going to forget one of the Rat Pack, Joey Bishop’s the one to forget.”
The other part is physical therapy, and for Wilder — who played with several bands over the years, including Legally Blue — that includes taking a few licks on his Rickenbacker bass. “I’ve been bashing the bass guitar on the neck with my one good working arm,” he said. “It’s not perfect, but it’s been keeping me busy.”
And while Wilder may have stepped down from his leadership role, Elliott thinks he’ll stay engaged as his recovery progresses. “I don’t think his last act with the VMC Foundation has been written,” Elliott said. “I very much want his ongoing involvement, and when he’s ready for that, I think he’ll be excited about that. But he’s not done with the VMC Foundation.”
He might not be. In our conversation, Wilder emphasized how fortunate he has to have a great support team around him, starting with his wife, Kate Wilder, and including his full-time caregiver, Amelia. “We’re very lucky to have resources for that,” he said. “I don’t know how people who don’t have that can make it.”
You can almost hear him starting to plan the campaign.