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Connie Wilcox rises before the sun each morning.

"I've been blessed with a ton of energy," she laughed. "I get by on four hours' sleep and am anxious for morning. I always have something going."She greets life as a friend, even when it is unkind.

Wilcox has honed her hectic pace over the years. When she was a young mother, she ran her own painting business and took her children along when she did estimates and later painted the houses.

She ran a day nursery for a while. She also became a potter, teaching the craft and selling her work.

"I always did what I could do at the time. When my six kids were small, I was always taking night classes, but I never took them for credits, because of the cost. I always knew that someday I would go to college and graduate."

"Someday" came when she was 50. She studied two majors and a minor and graduated with honors. For that extraordinary accomplishment, Clairol recently gave her one of 25 "Take Charge" awards. More than 1,500 women from around the country were nominated for the honor.

During the 21/2 years she attended Westminster College, Wilcox worked four hours a day as secretary to a group of professors, managed a family life with her husband and youngest son, who still lived at home, and studied late at night and before dawn. She was hurrying through school because she wanted to

graduate before her father died - and she did, by one year.

Along the way, she became a volunteer with a hospice program, providing care and help to those who are terminally ill and their families.

She understands about loss and caring for others. In the early '70s, her family was struck by a triple tragedy. Her much-loved sister developed brain cancer. While she was helping care for her, her 23-year-old son David lost both kidneys to a rare disease, Good Pasteur Syndrome. The Wilcox residence became a mini-hospital. David required dialysis several times a week. In the midst of all that, her 16-year-old daughter, Nancy, left the house with a cheery "Back in a few minutes" and never returned.

Police suspected she was a victim of serial killer Ted Bundy, and he confirmed it before his execution in January. David died four months after Nancy disappeared, and Wilcox's sister a year or so after that.

"I never did get depressed, though," Wilcox said. "Sad, yes. Terribly, terribly sad. But there's a big difference between heartache and depression."

Bundy's confession came during a natural break in Wilcox's life. She had plans to enter the gerontology program at the University of Utah but missed a deadline and had to wait a year. After Bundy's confession, she decided to take a "time out," though she isn't slowing down - she wouldn't, in her words, even know how.

The confession brought everything back. "I wouldn't let myself admit that was what happened to Nancy. I couldn't face thinking about that. But in a way, it's a relief to know. I couldn't go through photo albums before; it hurt too much. Now I can. And people don't need to worry about what to say to me; I have the ability to make people feel comfortable. It's a gift I'm thankful for.

"I'm not bitter about anything, because I couldn't get on with my life if I felt that way."

Getting on is important. Connie Wilcox has always had goals and dreams, and despite detours and delays, she said she eventually "gets there every time."

She's not sure exactly where she's heading right now, though she thinks it will be some aspect of art therapy, working with the elderly. That would be ideal, she said, melding her art and social work skills.

"I love art, and I can relate to the elderly. It's an exciting field and I want to be part of it."