Who We Are: Bill Wallace: a life of public service
summit daily news
BRECKENRIDGE – The walls of Bill Wallace’s office stand tribute to his years of service.
A certificate from the U.S. Army hangs alongside a plaque bearing the words “Teacher Extraordinaire.” Nearby is a plaque Wallace was presented with when he left the Board of County Commissioners and a picture of the St. Anthony’s Summit Medical Center, one of Wallace’s greatest accomplishments as a commissioner, he said.
“I’ve hung things I’m proud of,” Wallace said looking around the room.
The office is tucked away in the Summit County Courthouse in Breckenridge where Wallace, 63, has served as the county treasurer and public trustee since 2007.
The post is Wallace’s most recent job in a now more than 40-year career in public service, which has taken him from the role of schoolteacher to that of county commissioner.
Wallace, a Democrat, was elected to the Summit Board of County Commissioners in 1996 and held office for 10 years.
The former paratrooper and math teacher, who harbors a love and an almost paternal protectiveness for the high-alpine environment, took office at a defining moment for Summit County in terms of growth and development.
“We turned the atmosphere for the county from that of, every piece of land should be developed into a philosophy of, we need to really preserve the vistas of the mountains and concentrate development where it was already occurring in the towns,” Wallace said.
That was one of the successes of the 1997 Joint Upper Blue Master Plan, a document that joins the Summit Medical Center and the adoption of same-sex partner benefits for county employees at the top of Wallace’s list of his greatest accomplishments on the commission.
Still, he said, there’s more he would like to have done. He shakes his head as he recalls how close the county came to a water agreement with Denver while he was a commissioner and says he wishes he could have implemented a program to use beetle-kill trees to heat public buildings.
“If Boulder did it, we could have done it,” Wallace said.
The key to successful leadership, Wallace says, is vision and learning to balance the demands of a vocal minority or a vocal majority. Well, that, and the front-page philosophy, which suggests that if you would be comfortable having your actions appear on the front page of the newspaper, they’re probably safe actions to take.
Wallace arrived in Colorado in 1965 on a bus from New Jersey. A college freshman who grew up in California and New Jersey, Wallace was on his way to the University of Colorado when he got his first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains from the bus that brought him in from New York.
“I still remember that it just took my breath away,” Wallace said. “Still does.”
He started school studying engineering before switching to architecture, but within a few years he would leave school to join the U.S. Army, beginning what would become a career serving others.
In 1968 Wallace was a self-proclaimed “enlisted man,” when he was given the opportunity to go through training to become a paratrooper. The job would more than double his salary so he quite literally jumped at the offer.
Of his jump school class of 600, he was one of only 15 to be sent to Alaska rather than Vietnam. Within a few short years he had worked his way up to sergeant in the airborne infantry.
“The only things that fall from the sky are paratroopers and bird droppings,” Wallace jokes.
In his last year in the Army, as he was helping other soldiers earn their GEDs, he discovered a new passion – teaching.
Wallace returned to Colorado and earned a degree in mathematics with a minor in education at the University of Denver.
Shortly after graduating, Wallace caught a break. The only math teacher at Summit High School had left and, with the new school year just weeks away, the district needed a replacement quickly.
“I interviewed with the superintendent,” Wallace said. “His question was … ‘do you have a place to live?'”
He was offered and accepted the job and spent many of the next 23 years as the school’s one-man math department.
Today, he works alongside former students, including County Clerk and Recorder Kathy Neel.
But after more than two decades in the classroom, he began to burn out, he said, and turned his sights toward public office.
Wallace served as a county commissioner for 10 years and when he termed-out in 2006 he ran for the position of treasurer and public trustee.
The transition from commissioner to treasurer wasn’t far physically; his new office is just one floor down from the room where he sat as a county commissioner. But the work, Wallace said, is very different.
Much of his work now is carefully governed by state statute and he said his job is sometimes a balancing act between doing things right and doing the right thing.
He remembers working with one couple who had a son serving in Iraq. They came into Wallace’s office upset because tax notices had bounced around due to their son’s deployment making them late on their tax payments. He found ways to waive their interest fees.
Wallace spent much of his first term as treasurer and public trustee finding ways to improve operations in his office.
“I’ve tried to make the office user-friendly,” Wallace said. “I’ve also tried to work through, trim our budget and save the taxpayers money. It’s a good job.”
Today, the father of two enjoys fair-weather skiing and time with his daughters, both in their 20s, who star in a calendar that hangs alongside a lifetime of accolades on the walls of Wallace’s office.
Wallace ran unopposed for treasurer and public trustee again in November’s election and said he hopes to remain in office through his third term limit, adding at least a few more years to his tenure in service of his county.
“I just love Summit County,” Wallace said. “When I go to Denver and I come back and I see the mountains, it’s like, boy, I’m home.”
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