Sunday, October 28, 2012

Barbie's Former Attorney Drawn To Guide Kids

Judy Willis, a retired corporate attorney for Mattel, now volunteers to guide kids with careers, college and in this case she is helping Karla Sanchez, 18, with deferred action immigration paper work.
A Bit of Snazziness and a Lot of Pep Drives One Woman, a Retired Mattel Executive and Corporate Attorney, To Power Up Kids To Take Charge of Their Lives and Oh, Yeah: Have Fun While Doing It

By Diana L. Chapman

Meeting Judy Willis sometimes seems like watching the road runner fly by. She's quick. She's witty. She's driven in race cars at 180 mph. Became close friends with Barbie, one of the most popular dolls in the entire world, and Ken, not so much. And  she knows negotiating tactics that might make other attorneys blanch.

Willis, 63, a slender woman with one word describing her best -- peppy --once traveled the world on a mission to negotiate licensing agreements for Mattel, Inc. as its Senior Vice President, Business Affairs. She even flew to Germany to meet with BMW, VW, Porsche, Audi and Mercedes, and to Italy to meet with Ferrari and Lamborghini for the rights to be in the Hot Wheel line.

Even though she's hopped over to New Zealand, popped over to Russia and landed in Turkey where she was surrounded by armed guards and dogs at the airport to cut million dollar deals, Willis decided even though the "job was really fun" it was time to retire early from her sensational career life at the age of 60.

Why? She wanted to help kids.

She was never able to get pregnant when she was married, now single. Sad? Are you kidding? Ms. Bubbly makes things work. At first, she thought of becoming a foster  mother, but a friend believed that would limit her ability to help many children. Instead, she volunteers at a shelter for abused mothers and their children, aids  students at San Pedro High to guide them with their career choices and volunteers at Toberman Neighborhood Center working with clients on job skills and serving on its Development Committee. The Center provides gang prevention, family services and educational programs for youth.

"She's just awesome," said Toberman Board Member Mitch Harmatz. "She's high energy, she gives back to the community. She's compassionate and caring. And she's  fearless. She will call donors who have not mailed in their checks" and remind them.

The truth is, having missed out on having her own kids, Willis has discovered just how much she loves and enjoys being around children of all ages.

"I definitely get way more than I give," said Willis, who sports a highlighted bob and seems to grip life with smiles and exuberance. "I love being around the kids. I always wanted a lot of kids of my own, which never happened. At the shelter, they call me 'the fun lady'. Sometimes the kids scream when I get there. It doesn't get much better than that. I know that I'm very good with kids and I'm lucky to have these great volunteer

I first heard of Judy Willis from San Pedro High student Nancy Hinjos, now studying at George Town University, who raved about the attorney's ability to get students  enthusiastic about studying and life.

Willis volunteers at the high school each Friday.

"It's difficult for me to keep it brief when talking about Judy," Hinjos emailed me from  Washington, D.C. "I not only completely respected her because she was a professional  but also because she was donating her time to help San Pedro High students. She was very altruistic. Her contributions have personally affected me as I continue my education. Her story has stayed with me and is an inspiration. I still consider her to be a strong mentor and a friend."

I didn't hear about Willis again until my son, Ryan, came home from school and said he'd been having thought-provoking discussions with the attorney."I'm thinking about getting a law degree," Ryan said.

Coming from East Hartford Connecticut, a blue collar town, Willis grew up without a lot of money with three sisters and two brothers. It was a given that despite having little money, they were expected to go college and they all did.

Willis started out at Central Connecticut State University and became a social worker for six years, but with so much drive (and really enthusiastic overdrive) she decided to get a law degree and went nights to the University of Connecticut's law school. She transferred second year and graduated with a law degree from Boston College.

"Law school isn't hard," Willis said of her survival dueling a job and law school at the same time. "It's just a tremendous amount of work, a lot of reading and the bar is very stressful."

As soon as she graduated, work flew into her lap. H.P. Hood, the largest dairy in New England, hired her immediately in 1979. She was there for four years before Parker Brothers, a Massachusetts game company and maker of Monopoly,Risk, Sorry, etc., swept her up for five. Then, she landed the job as a corporate attorney for Mattel in El Segundo and loved every minute of it. So did her family with whom she shared her bonuses every year.

Working for Mattel for 20 years, left her with a nice collection of Barbie dolls that she is surrounded with at her Palos Verdes Peninsula home many designed by famous creator Bob Mackie.

Her life with the largest toy company in the world led to many glamorous moments with stardom -- meeting with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Tom Hanks, Jamie Lee Curtis, Cindy Crawford -- but even more exciting adventures driving with NASCAR's Kyle Petty at 180 mph at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina.

Mattel was Petty's sponsor. Willis also was allowed to go solo, but was so scared she could only hit the gas pedal up to 110 mph and who could blame her?  She also got a test drive in the Enzo Ferrari at Ferrari's test track in Italy, but she wasn't the driver.
Today her life is mostly channeled into what she can do for children.

Valerie Armstrong, who runs the school's College and Career Counseling Center, said she can't thank Willis enough for all her efforts.

"Judy Willis is so wonderful!" Armstrong emailed. "She truly enjoys working with our students. She assists with SAT registration, resume writing, scholarship searches, and mock job interviews. She also is a wonderful advisor to the students in Work Experience class. These students receive credit for working and they meet with me and Judy once a week. She researches articles on job trends and shares valuable career information with them."

Willis seals her lips when it comes to her work at a domestic violence shelter, which she can't identify because of confidentiality and the law. She won't tell the children's stories except for the nebulous ones, such as this.

When a 6-year-old realized she had once worked with toys, he asked her to bring him something collectible. She promised to bring him a Hot Wheels car which she had gotten at a fundraiser. The family later discovered that this particular little car was selling for over $600 on eBay.

The shelter's children, have become her teachers.

"I love the kids," she said. "Being at the shelter, I see how unique they are. I learned so much from them. They are so resilient."

She also likes to teach older students not to hang onto old mistakes, to move forward in life and have no regrets. That's how she lives because "you never know how long you are going to be here." Enjoy it, she added.

On a Friday afternoon, Willis was once again at San Pedro High helping student senior Karla Sanchez, 18, with deferred action paper work for immigrants"and she's been telling me about her job as lawyer," Sanchez said.

"That's getting me excited," said an enthused Sanchez, who added that she was so confused by the paperwork she couldn't have completed it without Willis. "She's been  a role model. It makes me see that there is opportunity out there.  It actually makes me feel like there are people who do care."