Lai named chamber’s Woman of the Year

Libby Lai was named Woman of the Year.

Libby Lai just can’t seem to retire. After spending about 10
years teaching at Las Animas and Antonio del Buono elementary
schools, the 65-year-old Gilroy resident continues to stay active
at Del Buono through the Costco reading program and through its
Gifted and Talented Education program.
Libby Lai just can’t seem to retire.

After spending about 10 years teaching at Las Animas and Antonio del Buono elementary schools, the 65-year-old Gilroy resident continues to stay active at Del Buono through the Costco reading program and through its Gifted and Talented Education program. Then, there’s her involvement with public libraries, the Gilroy Visitors Bureau, the Gilroy Exchange Club and Gilroy’s Sister Cities program. All of this volunteering and advising has garnered her the title of Gilroy Chamber of Commerce Woman of the Year.

The organization notified her of the honor just before the monthly chamber breakfast in November.

“My initial reaction was, ‘You’ve made a mistake,'” she said. “I was pretty much in shock that morning.”

Yet there is no mistaking Lai’s community involvement or her passion for education.

The West Virginia native met her husband, Kai, in the 1960s while she was working as a teacher in Manassas, Va. One of her fellow teachers said she knew of a “confirmed bachelor,” Lai recalled. The couple moved to Prunedale in the late 1960s after Kai got a job in San Jose. However, the Monterey County city had a bit too much rain for them.

“I tell you, we were about to build an ark,” Libby said in jest. “Finally, after learning that Gilroy was in the sun belt, we came to the sun.”

The couple moved to Gilroy in late 1968 and have stayed in town ever since.

Libby’s first foray into education in Gilroy was as a parent at the former Gilroy Parent Participation Nursery School. Her two children, Kristy and Scott, both attended Gilroy schools and now live in San Francisco. Libby has remained friends with some of the other parents who were involved at the preschool, she said.

Libby was a substitute teacher with the Gilroy Unified School District for about 10 years, and she took a full-time teaching job at Las Animas Elementary School in the early 1990s. She moved to Antonio Del Buono Elementary School when it opened in 2000 and retired in 2004. Libby still sees some of her students out and about in Gilroy.

“It’s hard because they remember you, but they grow up,” she said.

After Libby retired, local Joan Lewis told her that Costco was trying to start a reading program to help children who are reading below grade-level and she wondered if Libby wanted to get involved. The program has become one of Libby’s passions.

“It was a very well-researched phonics-based program,” Libby said.

The program has become an annual tradition for about two months each fall. Some Costco employees have come back for three or four years, she said. A couple participants have even changed their college majors to teaching as a result of their involvement in the program.

Lewis said Libby helped get the program off the ground.

“She’s a really great lady and very generous,” Lewis said.

Libby’s love of reading also led her to become involved with the local library system. She served on the City of Gilroy’s Library and Culture Commission from 1984 to 1991 and was appointed to serve on the newly created Gilroy Library Commission from 1995 to 2000. She also served on the Santa Clara County Library Commission, which ultimately led her to become state president of the California Association of Library Trustees and Commissioners in 1991.

“It’s because I simply like books,” Libby said of her library involvement, noting that she has shelves of reading material throughout her home.

In addition to traveling as a result of her library work, Libby also has visited foreign countries in conjunction with Gilroy’s Sister Cities program. She and Kai visited Angra do Heroismo on the Portuguese island of the Azores and Saint-Clar in southwestern France while serving on Sister Cities delegations. In Saint-Clar, they got to attend that city’s own “garlic festival,” which the entire community attended.

Libby’s involvement with the Sister City program also led her to become involved with the Gilroy Visitors Bureau, where she served as president in 2008-09.

“Libby is just a delight to work with,” Gilroy Visitors Bureau Executive Director Jane Howard said. “She has this way of getting involved, and she’s very low-key about it. But when there is need, or when someone needs help or guidance or information, she’s right there.”

The chamber honoree also served four years on the Citizens Advisory Committee for Community Development Block Grants. In addition, she has served as secretary for the Gilroy Exchange Club, where she helped develop a program to provide backpacks for local needy children.

Even in retirement, Libby remains committed to education through Antonio Del Buono Elementary School’s Gifted and Talented Education program. This year, she and Kai will focus on the science of The Wizard of Oz to teach students about tornadoes and rainbows.

Gilroy Chamber of Commerce CEO Susan Valenta said Libby is not afraid to step into leadership role, and has given of herself freely during her retirement.

“Libby is one of these people that’s taken a skill set that’s natural as a teacher and combined it with a heart for service and a love of the community,” Valenta said.

Libby said she has enjoyed Gilroy life. She recalled how a friend from West Virginia said she had watched the funeral procession for Staff Sgt. David Gutierrez on the Gilroy Dispatch’s Web site and was amazed at the turnout. Gilroy is much larger than most small towns in West Virginia, but her friend remarked that it still seems to have a small-town feel.

The couple has “enjoyed living here,” Libby said. “The climate you can’t beat, and it’s a community that you can get involved in.”

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