I come from a family that celebrates strong women. My great aunt Hannah lived on her own well into her nineties, regularly taking baked goods by bike to what she called “the old folks’ home” in her small town. Great aunt Vera, now in her late 80s, still travels around the country visiting loved ones. Great aunt Martha ran her own business from her porch. My maternal grandmother Carol was the only girl on her community softball team growing up. She played first base, and she was good. She also completed graduate school in the 40s and worked in education for many years, something that wasn’t common for her generation. Grandma Hilda, my dad’s mom, raised five children on a South Dakota farm, made her own ketchup, and canned pickles like a champion. I can still hear her voice saying grace before family dinners – something that was never skipped.
My mom, Mary Kay, officially retires after 35 years of service to South Dakota State University, on June 21st. She rose through the higher ed system during her time there, from preschool employee to professor to department head to interim dean of various schools to Assistant Vice President of Academic Affairs to Vice Provost. (Sometimes holding more than one position and having more than one office at a time, I might add.) As an academic advisor and later as an administrator, she was continually a fierce advocate for first year students. She wrote countless grants, started programs, conducted research, and led the university through two 10-year institutional accreditation reviews. She established a partnership with South Dakota’s tribal colleges and universities and worked collaboratively with faculty and staff at Oglala Lakota College, Sinte Gleska University and Sisseton Wahpeton College.
She also completed her PHd at Purdue University in the early 90s (In three years, with four children under 11) somewhere between preschool employee and department head.
Women in my family do hard things.
Which is important to point out, but it’s also not what I want to highlight. What I want to say after all of that isn’t how proud I am that she has accomplished so much professionally over these years (which I am). I don’t want to focus on how her professional trajectory is a good example of how a strong work ethic and going after what you want can result in myriad accomplishments (which it is).
What I want to focus on is that I never once remember feeling like her work mattered more than I did. She has always been my mom first, “important person at SDSU” second. Of course those things are intimately intertwined after 35 years, and in our culture work and identity tend to go hand in hand. As a kid growing up, there were surely plenty of things I wasn’t privy to and all sorts of work/life balance challenges. I’m sure there were times when I wanted her attention but had to wait because she needed to put it somewhere else for awhile. But what stands out to me as I reflect on my mom’s transition from active career to retirement is that even though she has navigated incredible amounts of responsibility, stress, and sheer volumes of work over the years, I have always felt like I (and my brothers) matter more than any job or title ever could. And that, I think, is the sign of a job well done.
As my friend and author Meta Carlson writes,
“You have more to share with the world,
new expressions of your generous self to discover.
You are still and always becoming.”
Congratulations, Mom. May you be as good to yourself in the years to come as you have been to countless others these past 35+ years.
And now, some words from a few others (i.e. Mom’s other children and children-in-law):
Something I have always admired about Mary Kay (my mother-in-law) is her dedication to her work. Over the years, some of them while she was graciously sharing her eastern SD home with us- Jacob and me and our dog, Mora (not to mention some baby ducks and chickens there for a little while…), I’ve been witness to her waking up before the light of dawn to have time to head to the gym before starting her work day at her office at SDSU. She has held so many different titles(!) and taken on so many extra responsibilities at the University, all while remaining steadfast in her daily tasks and seemingly unphased by the challenge.
I’ve enjoyed talking with her about her early studies relating to children and families (the same field and even some of the same teachers as my own mother)- and feel incredibly lucky that our daughter, Alma, has grandmothers on both sides so well-versed in child development!
When I worked at Cottonwood Coffee in downtown Brookings (just before Jacob and I started dating) Mary Kay would often come in and have a cup of coffee while working on something or meeting with a colleague; it was always a pleasure to say hello and catch up with her on her life and family. During that same time I had returned home to finish out my degree at SDSU and was needing to transfer credits from a very small, unconventional liberal arts program. Mary Kay was instrumental in making sure the credits were transferred successfully and in such a way that led to my timely graduation in the summer of 2008. I am forever indebted to her for that (Thank you!) and can see why students place their trust in her.
I am so grateful to call you a mother, grandmother, and friend. You are one of the most supportive and caring people I’ve ever known – and your career reflects the level of devotion and loyalty that you show in your personal life. Congratulations on a job well done, and thank you for being such a strong example to us of what you can accomplish when you put your mind to it.
I grew up in what is now one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Minnesota. I had friends with literal mansions, and was driven home from football practice in Porsche’s and the like. I am well familiar with the trappings and attitudes that come with wealth as I grew up with it (albeit from the outside looking in). Now one potential downside of working at a state-funded institution is your paycheck isn’t exactly private. As taxpayers are allowed to be informed, the Vice Provost salary becomes public knowledge, and I think most of us would gladly trade paychecks. That said, in all my years of knowing Mary Kay, not once has she even remotely espoused the jaded and somewhat careless attitude I saw among my wealthy childhood neighbors. In fact, as far as I can tell, she would operate in much the same way whether she had a six figure salary or one below the poverty line – she lives her values. Family. Food. Community. Social awareness and justice. In a world where it is so easy to be ‘corrupted’ by our incomes, Mary Kay has remained true to her identity and lives a life of integrity regardless of any opportunity to do otherwise. I think this speaks volumes about her character.
I have always been impressed by Mom’s motivation to get up so early every day and go to the gym or Dakota Nature Park before work. I’ve always wanted to be able to do that. I think it speaks to her capacity to identify what she wants to do, or what needs to be done, and just do it – and do it so well. There’s so many examples of this, both career related and not…from early in her career moving from South Dakota to Indiana with 4 kids to successfully get a PHD, to retiring from the upper ranks of SDSU, or tirelessly keeping the grass mowed and flower beds blooming at the homestead and several impromptu trips to Colorado to support Melissa, Ethan, and myself over the past year. I hope that trait rubs off on me even a little bit.
Dad recently showed me the list of all of your work accomplishments, which I started to read and then quickly realized that there were like 16 pages (!) full of all the great work you’ve done over the years. You never talked very much about your work so it was eye-opening to see your life’s work in writing – how varied and complicated your work must have been! And that it was actually just a fraction of what you accomplished is astonishing to me. All the individual students and people you helped and cared for, all of the grunt work you did every single day (not to mention often doing two or more jobs at the same time) – all these things don’t always show up on paper but are the difference between doing a good job and doing a great job.
I am forever grateful to have you as a mother and guide in this life. Thanks for everything. I love you dearly.
I have always admired your passion for both professional self and family. You’ve shown true dedication to SDSU, stepping in countless times to fill a need or gap. As a new Mom venturing back into the workforce I find such strength in the example you’ve set. Congratulations on an incredible career, and thank you for your past and future mentorship. And of course, for building such a beautiful family along the way.
Mom, you are such a rare combination of ambition and compassion in your work. Your ability to carry dual roles is incredible.
Somehow you have balanced being a wonderful, caring mother while growing and learning in a very complex field.
You have not only amassed an awesome body of work for SDSU, at the same time you have given your expertise to other institutions and individuals in need of guidance. You were always there for everyone at work and at home no matter what.
So proud of you,
Mary Kay you have such generous heart, a dynamic thoughtful career, and inspire lifelong learning. Your inner light and curiosity shines throughout all of your work and your children. As Maya Angelou said, “Nothing can dim the light which shines from within.”