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Victoria Colgan, 1948-2003
By Sally Smith, Voice Editor and Co-Publisher
Noe Valley, and the Noe Valley Voice in particular, lost one of its finest this fall. On Sept. 12, Victoria Colgan died peacefully at home, after waging a six-year battle with lung cancer. She was 54.
Noe Valley dog walkers and local café workers probably know Victoria from the strolls she took down Church Street or her trips to restaurants on 24th Street. She went to lunch at Chloe's or Savor, or ordered takeout from Haystack, on almost a daily basis. She also patronized Royal Cleaners, Tuggey's Hardware, and all the other small businesses that make this neighborhood so special.
Others may have met Victoria as a neighbor. During her 24 years in San Francisco, she lived at four addresses in Noe Valley--on Vicksburg, Cesar Chavez, Homestead, and for the past decade on Hoffman Avenue near 23rd Street.
But if you just bumped into her on the street, you might not have had a clue as to her many accomplishments outside the neighborhood.
She was a devoted friend. She was a brilliant software engineer and management consultant. And in the last years of her life, while she herself was coping with the terrible realities of lung disease, she became a forceful advocate for hundreds of fellow cancer patients.
One of five children, Victoria was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. She attended Washington College in Chestertown, Md., graduating in 1970 with a bachelor's degree in English and French literature.
Over the next nine years, she took classes at John Hopkins University and honed her computer programming skills. She eventually became a systems analyst and applications manager for the University of Maryland's Health Sciences Computer Center.
She also got married and divorced, before moving to San Francisco in 1979, to take a job as a project manager at Levi Strauss & Co.
"I remember her being shown around her first day of work at Levi's," recalls longtime friend and colleague Jerry Salzman. "She had beautiful long blond hair...." But as he got to know her better, Victoria's other talents were the ones that impressed him most. "She was just masterful at the jobs she took on. She was very soft-spoken. But the quiet person is the one everyone has to stop and pay attention to. Everything she said carried weight."
Victoria worked for Levi's for six years, managing the jean maker's merchandising systems and directing a staff of 20 to 30 professionals. She was part of the group that helped Levi's shift to a PC-based inventory system.
During that era, she also contributed her writing and editing talents to the Noe Valley Voice. Voice Co-Publisher Jack Tipple showed his appreciation in a musical tribute he wrote in the early '80s, to the tune of Leon Russell's "Song for You":
[Victoria] you've been so many places in your life and time,
You've edited a lot of copy, you've written some sexy headlines
You've acted out your life at meetings, with at least two other people watching
But now it's your birthday and we're singing this song for you...
In 1985, Victoria left Levi's to go to work for Wells Fargo Bank, where she again quickly rose to the top. By the time she left to start her own consulting business in 1993, she was a senior vice president and district manager overseeing 60 employees in the bank's retirement plan division.
Debra Jandegian, a friend for 25 years, worked with Victoria at both Levi's and Wells Fargo. "I always felt laughter and happiness around Victoria. As a person, she was so down to earth and sincere about everything. She never put herself on a pedestal. Her calming personality was integrated really well with her subtle sense of humor."
Jandegian remembers a stressful time at work when Victoria broke the tension by coming into a meeting wearing a strange hat. "She had on some sort of headband that had bee antennas bobbing up and down. Everybody just broke up. She always liked wearing costumes, and she loved Halloween."
After she launched Colgan Associates, Victoria provided assistance in the field of information technology to both Merrill Lynch and Charles Schwab. She also gave computer advice to practically all of her friends. (Without Victoria, we at the Voice would still be Luddites.)
When Victoria was diagnosed with lung cancer in August of 1997, her world turned upside down. But she met the challenge with her usual aplomb. Recognizing the grim statistics on lung cancer survival, she put her affairs in order, threw herself into researching the latest treatments, and with great courage, underwent a series of painful surgeries and clinical trials. She became an expert on her disease. In fact, she often told friends, "I should have become a doctor."
She also began volunteering for the Alliance for Lung Cancer Advocacy, Support, and Education (ALCASE), a national organization based in Vancouver, Wash. She spearheaded the group's "Run for the Lungs" fundraising campaign and became a "phone buddy" to dozens of lung cancer victims around the country.
"She never let despair prevent her from offering hope to other people with lung cancer," says Janet Healy of ALCASE. "And she was committed to doing what she could to increase national attention to the issues of the disease. She was such a gifted woman. She seemed to have this spiritual backbone. Her philosophy was, even though we don't know all the answers, these are the things that we can do."
The American Lung Association also benefitted from Victoria's help. "She was so bright, we couldn't just have her stuff envelopes and do data entry," says Linda Civitello-Joy, president and CEO of the local chapter. "She went to Sacramento for our Lobby Day and visited with legislators, and we also called upon her to testify at local hearings regarding air-quality issues. She was smart, funny, friendly, and always an upbeat person to have around."
In addition, she was a pillar of strength in the support groups she attended at both Kaiser Permanente and U.C.S.F. "She was my inspiration and my hope," recalls Frederick Street resident Karen Shore. "I met her in the Kaiser group two months after my diagnosis. And I was told I had two to six months. She was there, and she'd already had a year and a half. I figured if she could do it, so could I. We became friends and traded stories. She educated me immensely. I felt like I never had to worry. She also decided one day that I needed a cat. She said, 'We need to go to the pound.' She dragged me out and we found a cat that afternoon."
Which brings us to the other, more personal side of Victoria. She loved animals, and working in her garden. And she loved music, from the Messiah to Joni Mitchell. She was an avid reader and follower of local and national politics. Though it was hard for her to walk, she joined an early peace march protesting the war in Iraq.
Victoria tried to do her bit for the environment as well. Since she lived along the 48-Quintara line, she was acutely aware of the exhaust spewing from Muni's diesel buses. In 2001, she spent months lobbying the Board of Supervisors to force Muni to switch from diesel to cleaner fuel.
Her sister Helen Colgan, who followed Victoria to San Francisco in 1984, points out her great generosity. "She was a warm and loving friend. She was a doting aunt to my son Daniel, and a proud mother to Chloe, a 10-year-old, short-haired gray cat who ruled the roost on Hoffman."
She is also survived by her sister Nancy Colgan of Towson, Md.; her brother Bartlett Colgan of Phoenix, Md.; sister Mary Kollmorgen of Tulsa, Okla.; and a niece and several nephews. They all express deep sadness at her passing.
I can't finish writing this obituary without saying that Victoria was my best friend, and I'm humbled and proud to have known her. Like Karen Shore, I have Victoria to thank for pushing me to get a dog, and more importantly, for finding the want ad for the condo I eventually bought above Noe Valley.
She gave Jack and me constant support in our efforts to put out the paper each month. One of her last comments the week before her death was, "I'm still trying to figure out how I can take a copy of the Voice with me, to send you a picture."
Knowing Victoria, we should be seeing that photo any day now.
A memorial gathering for Victoria Colgan will be held Nov. 1, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the Miraloma Park Improvement Club, 350 O'Shaughnessy Blvd., at Del Vale. Contributions in her memory can be made to ALCASE, Unit 78, P.O. Box 4800, Portland, OR 97208-4800.