MJ Schillaci’s Offers Three Bits of Advice to Her Successor
TELLURIDE – On a snowy afternoon in late November, Telluride Town Clerk Mary Jo “MJ” Schillaci recounted her nearly three decades as a public servant.
In her 24 years, she’s resolved runoff elections, survived breast cancer and recovered from a recent heart attack.
The key to her success? Taking her roles of wife, mother and Telluride Town Clerk one day at a time.
Sunday, Dec. 1 marks her retirement.
Schillaci, 66, was born in Alpena, Mich., in 1947. Her mother, an election judge, sparked her interest in politics, and had her monitoring current events at an early age.
“I grew up being aware of what was happening politically. Discussions around our dinner table always seemed to center around what was happening in Washington,” said Schillaci.
At age 12, she distributed pamphlets and literature for the 1962 Kennedy campaign, fostering her interest in public policy by studying philosophy and social work at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.
In the mid 1970s, Schillaci left Michigan with her new husband Lenny, and headed west to find a new place to call home.
“We quit our jobs in Michigan, and I packed up my books and my Levis and we headed out west. We wanted to end up in Northern California, but we wound up here, because Lenny’s brother lived here at the time,” she said.
“We didn’t have any money, but Lenny, his brother and I built a house here. We were living on credit cards and I was a teacher’s aide at the school, which paid for food. We decided to stay, because Telluride was a very active community.
“But the first year we were here we didn’t get any snow!”
In 1985, Schillaci started working as a part-time secretary for the Arts and Special Events Board, eventually becoming Telluride Town Clerk in 1989.
Over the past three decades, Schillaci’s responsibilities have included conducting town elections, record management and issuing licenses.
Schillaci has acted as a steady hand at the helm of the clerk’s office, said Telluride Mayor Stu Fraser.
“MJ has absolutely acted as a friend to me, for the past 12 years,” he added. “She has always been so easy to get close to, just accessible on anything. She gets so involved in a great depth on a variety of different issues. Her hand is there to help people on an ongoing basis. She’s absolutely loved in this town and I’ll miss her greatly.”
Because of her work in town’s municipal elections, Schillaci was celebrated by the Colorado Municipal Clerks Association in 2012 for “Outstanding Contributions by a Clerk.”
Schillaci said she’s accumulated a treasure trove of information during her time as clerk, and has lots of advice for future clerks in Telluride and across the country.
“First, don’t get drunk in Telluride. You end up saying things you really shouldn’t say in a public setting,” she said.
“Second, don’t ever take a political position. It’s never my job as clerk to take positions, it’s only to implement the decisions the council makes,” she said. Schillaci recalled a dinner party decades ago where she “had a couple glasses of wine,” and voiced her opinion on an issue facing the town. The next day, Schillaci said, she had someone talking to her about it.
“I’m real rational,” she said. “I want people to make decisions with the best information. Sometimes this community ends up having biases that don’t allow them to take in new information. Sometimes it’s hard to watch. But as clerk, you need to be completely apolitical.
“Third, never gossip. Councilors and mayor sometimes feel the need to come in my office, and whatever they say stays here. I used to feel comfortable telling the cat, but then I was afraid she’d tell someone else,” she said.
During her time as clerk, Schillaci has endured many life-altering illnesses. In 2001, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I just took everything one step at a time. When I looked at my cancer in its entirety, all the steps and surgeries, it was just too much,” she said. “Instead, I just focused on one thing at a time.”
Rather than staying home and resting, Schillaci went to work during the radiation phases of her treatment. “I could have taken more time off. But I didn't want to go to bed and pull the covers of my head and say, ‘Oh, my god, I have cancer and I’m just going to stay in bed until I’m done.’
“You just deal. My advice to people is to just take one thing at a time. I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing, so I was good at taking things in steps,” she said.
After 24 years on the job, Schillaci is looking forward having time to herself to work on projects.
“I have a list of things I want to do and places I want to visit. I want to spend time with my granddaughter Emma who is 11. I don’t see her much. I also want to travel with my daughter Angela; we travel well together,” she said.
“And I’d like to learn to quilt. I have a lot of quilting ideas in my head, but don’t have any of the skills to do them. The Down Valley Quilters will teach me like they taught their daughters. Plus, I’ve got hundreds of books at my house that I haven’t read!”
There are also a number of social issues Schillaci hopes to work on during her retirement, including gerrymandering.
“The National League of Women Voters has taken that on. It’s one of their mission statements. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to join that organization. I think I can help because I know what it means locally, specifically this district,” she said.