After a 36-year military career highlighted by a historic first, Marcia Anderson has returned full-time to the Madison area intent on relaying the lessons she learned to the next generation of young women.
“I’d like to do some public speaking about leadership, especially to young people, focusing on young women,” said Anderson, who capped her military career with two years in the Pentagon as deputy chief of the Army Reserve.
“The military and the legal professions are still pretty male-dominated,” Anderson, 58, said in an interview Thursday. “I’d like to tell them about handling themselves effectively in an organization, while at the same time making a contribution.”
In 2008, the Beloit native was promoted to brigadier general, which made her the Army’s highest-ranking African-American woman. In 2011, she became the first black woman to earn the rank of major general.
From 2010 to 2012, she was deputy commanding general for the Army human resources command at Fort Knox, Kentucky, followed by her stint as the Pentagon’s No. 2 Army Reserve officer.
“Across the board she was just so remarkably gifted and poised,” said William D. Razz Waff, a retired reserve major general who worked alongside her in both assignments. “When she walked in the room, folks paid attention.”
At the Pentagon, she was often called upon to represent the reserve in meetings with the secretary and the chief of staff of the Army, and she served on a policy board that advised the secretary of defense.
Anderson needed to overcome the bias of regular army officers who don’t accept reserve and national guard personnel as their equals, Waff said.
“She was masterful at overcoming that,” he said. “Folks would often say say ‘Well, you are just a reservist; what do you know about the topic?’ And then she would start talking, and when she was finished she had pretty well silenced the person who had asked the question.”
After her two-year active-duty stint at the Pentagon ended in 2014, Anderson moved from her Alexandria, Virginia, apartment back to her home in Verona, where she lives with her husband, Amos Anderson, a retired Madison school district administrator.
She retired from the military in April but has continued to work in her job as clerk of courts for U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Wisconsin in Madison.
At noon on Friday she is scheduled to be honored in the federal courthouse at a ceremony hosted by Maj. Gen. Patrick J. Reinert, commanding general of the 88th Regional Support command at Fort McCoy.
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Anderson’s father, Rudy Mahan, a retired Beloit Corp. sandblaster, served in the Army Air Force during the Korean War but narrow options available to black soldiers kept him driving trucks despite his desire to fly bombers, she said.
She said she learned a crucial lesson as a girl in the 1960s watching her mother and grandmother being ignored in a car dealership. They insisted on seeing the manager, then showed him a bank financing letter, and were able to buy a car.
“That showed me the importance of being prepared and strategic, and just putting people in a position where they have to pay attention to you,” Anderson said.
She graduated from Creighton University and Rutgers University School of Law. In 1998, she was hired by the federal court in Madison.
Anderson was in the public eye in Wisconsin after former Gov. Jim Doyle appointed her to the board that hired the secretary of the state Department of Veterans Affairs.
The board fired the secretary, John Scocos, and some veterans groups criticized her, saying she wasn’t qualified.
After Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2011, the board’s hiring and firing power was removed, Scocos was rehired, and the state paid him $325,000 to settle lawsuits he had filed.
Anderson said she wants to be a force for positive change, but won’t run for office because election rhetoric has so little to do with policy.
She said she appreciated the military’s reliance on objective criteria in personnel decisions.
“There are certain qualifications and requirements needed to even be considered for promotion to the next level, so you know what you have to do,” Anderson said. “In other fields it’s sometimes a mystery.”
Anderson said she worries that good people are driven away by what they see as unfair behavior in organizations. She urges young people to get involved and make change by building relationships with others, working hard and thinking strategically.
“It’s not necessary to take your shoe off and pound the table,” she said. “Talk to other people before the meeting. The worse thing you can do in a meeting is jump in and not have anyone there to back you up.”