Reinvent, not retire.
That’s the motto that Marta McAllister lived by leading up to the moment when she heard her name called with the rest of the 512 graduates at UW-Parkside’s recent commencement ceremony.
Born and raised in Kenosha, the 62-year-old McAllister earned a degree with a major in Liberal Studies, with a concentration in Sociology and Interdisciplinary Studies and a Certificate in Leadership.
“My husband (Gary) and my children (Rachael, Alexandra and Mario) and my grandchildren were there,” McAllister said. “The very people who supported me continued to support me. It’s really important that you have a support group in life, no matter who you are. Everybody needs that, and not everybody has that.
“My dad turned 91 the day I graduated, and I visited him after the ceremony. I thought, ‘I have a long way to go if I want to take after him.’ I just wanted to have that knowledge and complete something that I started so long ago.”
For her “stick-to-itiveness” and her work in the community, McAllister has been selected as the Kenosha.com Kenoshan of the Week.
McAllister’s march toward obtaining a degree from Parkside started in 1979 shortly after graduating from St. Joseph High School. She left college, and subsequently returned, in every decade before coming back for the final leg of her quest in 2020.
“My education journey consisted of a lukewarm start, dead stops and dropouts, reinstatements and then, finally, a well-laid plan of success,” McAllister said. “Life happens. Other things were important. I had children. I had work.”
In 2020, McAllister received an inspirational postcard from Parkside, reminding her that she had over 80 college credits. That gave her the jolt that she needed to finish her degree.
“Marta immediately impressed me with her determination and motivation to complete the degree she started so many years before,” said Dr. Claire Hicks, McAllister’s advisor. “She is a model of resilience. No obstacle deterred her from reaching her goal of walking off the stage at graduation with a diploma in her hands.”
What makes McAllister’s story even more interesting is her deep ties to Parkside, going back to the early days of the prairie campus. Her grandfather was the HVAC contractor for the construction of the college.
Young Marta watched Parkside being built.
“In order for us to go to the work site, we had to wear hard hats,” McAllister recalled. “Because we have a Danish surname (Christensen), he put Danish horns on the back of our helmets, with our names on them.
“My uncle, from my father’s side of the family, was a tile setter, and he did all the brickwork, right through the thoroughfare that still exists out at the university. Even though they renovated the university several times, they’ve never changed that brickwork.”
Receiving a well-earned degree takes a back seat to McAllister’s life’s work, however.
Since 1995, McAllister has been employed by the Kenosha Achievement Center, working with adults with developmental disabilities. For the last seven years, she has served as the KAC’s agribusiness specialist and oversees the pro-vocational GardenWorks program.
“She has dedicated her life to serving her community and its most vulnerable citizens,” said Rachael Fellers, McAllister’s daughter. “She is truly amazing.”
McAllister, who worked as the food service manager for 16 years at the KAC, received a certification in permaculture design from Gateway Technical College in 2015.
When the program concluded, she participated in an international field study in London. The tour included gardens, markets and flower shows.
Once she returned home, McAllister was inspired to start the garden project at the KAC.
“We have a phenomenal garden that we’ve grown,” McAllister said. “The program is for adults with special needs. I’m lucky. I had the support of a CEO (Chris Weyker) who said, ‘Yes, go ahead with this program.’”
The new college graduate will continue doing her good work at the KAC, with no plans of slowing down.
“There’s so much to do in life,” McAllister said. “Every time you wake up, it’s a new day. You never know what’s going to happen during the day, do you? Life is a blessing.
“You do things to hopefully make the world around you better. And, you keep going.”