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Judy Koch: Bringing high-quality books to all children

 

For a woman who continues to insist that she "never wanted a career," Judy Koch has taken some surprising turns in her life.

After spending a decade helping her husband run their family-owned sheet metal company, the couple decided to divorce in 1989.

At the time, Koch thought to herself, "'I never really wanted a career anyway -- now I can stay home and be a full-time mother to two teenage boys.'" But, inexplicably, she ended up buying her husband out of the business, which she "never had any intention of doing," she insists.

The decision to buy him out came after much soul-searching, and "once the decision was made, I never looked back and have never regretted it," she said.

For the next eight years, Koch presided over a booming precision metal contract manufacturing company, growing sales from $6 million to $95 million to an array of electronics, military, semiconductor, medical and technology customers including Apple, Avex, Cisco Systems, HP, Silicon Graphics, Solectron and Sun Microsystems.

All the while, the former English teacher somehow made time to nurture her love of children's literature, even establishing a library of children's books inside the company to encourage her employees -- many of them immigrants from Mexico -- to take home books to read to their kids.

Since selling the business in 1997, Koch has more fully devoted herself to her true passion: instilling a love of reading in children -- especially low-income children -- by ensuring that they have access to high-quality picture books.

The lending library she started inside her business became the not-for-profit Bring Me A Book Foundation, which has given books to more than 1 million California children and families at 3,000 sites, including low-income preschools, child-care centers, homeless shelters, parks and libraries. In Santa Clara and San Mateo counties alone, the group has placed small libraries in more than 1,500 classrooms.

"In San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, over 40 percent of children are not reading at grade level by third grade -- we should be ashamed," Koch said in an interview.

"We want to make sure that children learn to read by third grade by bringing books to them at home and in school. All children should have a few good books at home and in their classroom -- and there should never be a dearth of quality books for children in Silicon Valley."

Koch's home in Palo Alto is a testament to her passion. The living room is rimmed with wooden bookcases displaying -- face out -- many of the best children's classics. The walls are lined with original art by some of the greatest American children's book illustrators: Ludwig Bemelmans of "Madeline"; Ernest Shepard of "Winnie-the-Pooh"; and Jessie Wilcox Smith, who illustrated, among other things, "A Child's Garden of Verses," "Little Women" and Mother Goose.

"We know children learn to read from rhyming words," said Koch, adding she's disappointed when she hears from teachers that Mother Goose rhymes are not as popular as they once were. "One of the ways we can tell reading readiness is by seeing whether children can rhyme words."

In her years as a middle school teacher before she went into business, Koch had taught both gifted and struggling students and noticed that the failing kids tended to be those who hadn't learned to read well.

"They were reading as low as second- and third-grade level in seventh and eighth grade and failing in school -- it was so depressing," she recalled.

"My 'aha' was that junior high is too late; we've got to help children learn to read early on -- the sooner the better."

Back in the 1990s, the lending library inside her manufacturing business proved popular with her employees.

One worker told her his daughter put a note on his alarm clock to remind him to bring her home a book. Another employee, whose children were already in community college, took home children's books to teach English to himself.

And several years after she'd sold the company, another employee tracked her down to invite her to a dinner at which his son was being honored as a valedictorian.

"When I look back to working and running the company, my takeaway in my rocking chair will be remembering their stories," she said.

Preparing for the Lifetime of Achievement event on May 15, Koch said, has prompted her to "reflect on the past and on what matters most."

For her, that includes spending time with friends and family, particularly her five grandchildren, ages 3 to 11, who all live in the area. She is grateful, she said, when she can spend time on "reading to grandchildren, adventure travel, dinner at my dining room table or simply giving a book to my Uber driver to take home to read to his children."

She's also grateful to the hundreds of individual, foundation and corporate donors to the Bring Me A Book Foundation, which has spawned like-minded affiliates in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Florida and even Hong Kong.

"I wish I had a better opportunity to say 'thank you' to people," she said.

"I feel good about what we've accomplished, but we're not done. Our goal is to blanket Santa Clara and San Mateo counties as a model that can be replicated by others."

Click on the links below to read about the other Lifetimes of Achievement awards honorees:

Bill Busse: Hard work and optimism have been hallmarks of architect's life

Martin Deggeller: Creating environments for future generations

Jerry and Dick Smallwood: Couple sets up scholarship fund, the gift that keeps on giving

Emy and Jim Thurber: Chance, adventure, politics and partnership define the shared life of Los Altos couple

Contributing Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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