Marcia Anderson is a game-changing general

Anderson paved a groundbreaking path

When Marcia Anderson speaks to young people these days, sometimes she will mention that she flunked kindergarten in Beloit. Her teacher said she was slow.

“It doesn’t matter where you start,” Anderson says. “It’s where you finish. A lot of it is on you, but there are people who want to help you, if you reach out to them. You have to do your part. But it’s not impossible.”

Anderson, 61, and nearly three years retired from the United States Army, knows about obstacles, and overcoming them. At one point in her Army Reserve career – she was a captain at the time – Anderson’s boss, a lieutenant colonel, introduced her to his staff by saying, “I was forced to take her by the brigade commander.”

She responded by excelling in the job, seeking advice from colleagues who weren’t “knuckleheads” – Anderson’s word for those who discriminate – and blazing a groundbreaking path in the Army.

For much of 2011, Anderson served as deputy commanding general for the Army Human Resources Command, which is a brigadier general position, at Fort Knox. It was there Anderson became the first African-American woman to earn the federally recognized rank of major general. She then went to the Pentagon.

Anderson has lived in the Madison area off and on since 1998, when she became clerk of court of the federal Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, a position she still holds. Today Anderson and her husband, Amos Anderson, who is retired from the Madison Metropolitan School District, live in Verona.

Her Army career came almost by accident. Anderson was born in Beloit but soon moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, with her mom after her parents divorced.Marcia Anderson is a game-changing general

It was during registration at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, needing a science credit – she was in liberal arts – that Anderson saw a sign advertising “Military Science,” with photos of people jumping out of airplanes.

“Is this like physical education?” she asked.

“Yes, miss,” the recruiter said.

It was the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. “I didn’t have a clue,” Anderson says.

Still, she signed up.

“It was great,” she says. “I learned a lot. I was pretty shy. It compelled me to come out of my shell, get in front of groups and motivate them.”

Anderson was commissioned into the Army Reserve – which requires training one weekend a month and two full weeks each year – having turned down active duty after graduating from Creighton.

She worked three years at the Kellogg Co.’s cereal processing plant in Omaha – “to see what the real world was all about” – then enrolled in law school at Rutgers University.

“Half the kids in my class – their dads were lawyers,” Anderson says. “It was a realization that other people might have advantages. I was on first base and they were on their way to third.”

She befriended them. “They knew stuff I didn’t know.”

Anderson was working as in-house counsel for a company in New Jersey when she successfully applied for the clerk of court position at a bankruptcy appeals court in Boston. The bankruptcy court job in Madison came next.

Meanwhile, she rose in the Reserve.

“I liked it,” Anderson says. “I liked the camaraderie, and that I could leave my legal brain at the curb. I was an administrative officer and did training for the Army.”

She recognized, too, how her advancement was seen by others.

“The young people, particularly women and people of color, were excited to see a female officer. I tried to motivate people and take care of those who worked for me. I just kept moving up the ranks.”

In 2008, Anderson was promoted to brigadier general. In 2010, she took a leave from the bankruptcy court when she was assigned to a full-time position at Fort Knox, where she replaced Maj. Gen. William D. Razz Waff running the Army’s Human Resources Command. Later, the two worked together at the Pentagon.

Waff calls Anderson “gifted and poised, with an ability to tell people what they needed to hear rather than what they wanted to hear.” He credits her with being prepared for opportunities for promotion when they became available. “At each point she was the right person at the right time for the right position.”

In 2012, Anderson went to the Pentagon as deputy chief of the Army Reserve. It was a big job with big pressure, an $8 billion budget and meetings with members of the Armed Services Committees for both houses of Congress.Marcia Anderson is a game-changing general

She shined. “It was kind of a culmination of all those years back in ROTC: working with other people as part of a team, doing my homework, thinking strategically and acting tactically,” Anderson says. “It all kind of came together.”

She returned to Madison in 2014 and retired from the Reserve two years later.

She thinks the Army is in good shape, generally, but regrets that “40 percent of the recruits come from six Southern states.” Along with the need for more diversity, she points to childhood obesity as not just a health problem but a potential national security problem if 31 percent of young people can’t join the military because they’re overweight.

Even in retirement, the accolades keep coming. In October 2017, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., Anderson received the Major General James Earl Rudder Medal for her outstanding contributions to the Army. Not only was Rudder a war hero, later, as president of Texas A&M, he integrated women into the university.

Groundbreaking Marcia Anderson will wear the medal well.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his weekly blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.