These are the innovators who were first. Who broke color or gender barriers. Who looked at things differently. Who chose paths all their own. Either an institution, a concept or a place — in many cases, Missouri State University — has taken big steps forward because of these alumni. Here’s the chance for them to share their stories.
Dr. Donald Shook
- MSU degree:
- Bachelor’s in education, 1954
- Why he is a barrier breaker:
- Early leader in Missouri’s community college system
After graduating from MSU, Don Shook spent two years in the U.S. Army during the Korean conflict.
He then taught in two U.S. high schools. He went on to leadership roles in education, and became an advocate for community colleges throughout Missouri as the state expanded its higher education network. He helped start three public community colleges — Crowder College in Neosho, East Central College in Union and St. Charles Community College in St. Charles County — and served as president at each location. Missouri State awarded him the Outstanding Alumni Award in 1977.
How did the community college system get on your radar?
While working on my doctorate in education, I began reading that community colleges were a quick-developing, new kind of educational experience for this country. Missouri had junior colleges, but those were operated by high school districts. Missouri passed a law in 1961 — about the same time I got my doctorate — making it possible to organize community college districts and have a local tax to support them.
Dr. Donald Shook helped start three community colleges in Missouri, establishing a new type of educational opportunity in the state. He served as president at each.
What about the community college structure appealed to you?
I think the basic mission — at that time, and still today — is to provide post-secondary educational opportunities for individuals who, otherwise, probably wouldn’t have that opportunity. The community college system appealed to me as something needed to eliminate barriers students might face, such as cost and travel distance. The system was new, with difficult assignments, and the challenge appealed to me.
What has been the most rewarding part of your career?
Being able to see the value of education to students. There were people in the initial enrollment classes who had wanted to go to college for several years, but just didn’t feel, for various reasons, they could get a college education. To know that we helped eliminate barriers and enabled them to reach that goal was a very satisfying experience. And every community that I was in eventually stated, after the college had been there a while, that they thought one of the outstanding assets of the area was the community college.
What is it like to have your name on buildings at East Central and St. Charles Community colleges?
That is a very nice honor. I was at East Central for 18 years and at St. Charles for 10 years. I was certainly the first person that they employed, and was the first president in both of those cases. When we were developing those campuses, there were a monumental number of tasks. Certainly this is a type of undertaking that one person can’t do. I was fortunate enough to surround myself with dedicated educators who were very much interested in community college work, and through the efforts and cooperation with everybody, we were able to get it done. The four years I had at MSU made it possible for me to be a part of public education in the state of Missouri. I think we have a very fine system of colleges and universities. To contribute to it has been very satisfying for me.
Freda (Thompson) Wright
- MSU field of study:
- Medical technology, attended 1954-56
- Why she is a barrier breaker:
- One of the first four African-Americans to be accepted to the university
In spring 1954, Freda Marie Wright (maiden name Thompson), salutatorian of her class at Springfield’s Lincoln High School, applied to then-Southwest Missouri State College.
She had little hope of being accepted. The school, like many others in the U.S., was segregated, but change was on the way. The Supreme Court ruled to desegregate schools in May 1954. By July, Wright received the first acceptance letter Missouri State had ever given an African-American. Three others joined her: her sister Betty Thompson and another set of sisters, Rose and Elizabeth Ann Payton. She completed two years at MSU, then moved to Minnesota for medical technician training. She went on to blaze trails throughout her career, often serving as the only, or one of few, African-Americans on staff. She retired in the late 1990s and turned 80 years old this March.
Describe your experience applying to MSU.
My mother was a widow, and she didn’t have the money for me to go away to another place for school. When others told me they didn’t have other black students (at MSU) and I wouldn’t be admitted, the only thing I thought was, “I will be admitted, because I can’t afford to go to school anywhere else.” I think it has to do with the good Lord. I prayed: “My mother can’t afford to send me away; I need to go to school here.” I was really thankful I was able to go to school there because I knew some of those kids hadn’t been around black people too much. This way, they could be around somebody other than their color and witness, “Oh, they’re just like I am.”
The press covered your acceptance, and reported that there were mixed feelings among the student body. When you were a student on campus, how did the atmosphere feel?
I never thought anything about it (being in the spotlight). I was thinking about an education, that’s what I was thinking about. The teachers were all very nice and friendly. But I really didn’t feel different. One of my best friends was white, and she went to school there. The neighbors behind me were white. The only time I felt that I was different was when I looked in the mirror.
Why did you choose medical technology as your career?
We lived across the street from a doctor, who wanted me to become a nurse. I never wanted to be a nurse. I wanted to be on the other end, drawing blood or specimens, and then running the specimens. One day after a few years at MSU I saw in a magazine that a university in Minnesota had a one-year med tech program, so I applied there and moved for school. I was the only black girl there at that time. I ended up being just what I wanted to be.
What accomplishments would you say you’re most proud of?
Being able to make money and be on my own two feet. I didn’t want anything stopping me. I felt that if somebody else had something, I could have the same thing. My mother would always say, “What if something happens to your spouse, what are you going to do then? You don’t want to depend on the state or somebody else taking care of you. You want to do it on your own.”
Do you have any advice for Missouri State students?
There’s a song that says you can make it, and it seems like it sticks in my head all the time. Just try, and you can make it. Don’t give up. Keep on trying.
Are you proud you were among the first African-American students at Missouri State?
I feel good about it. At least I helped somebody else along the way — to come through, to break the waters, so to speak. (MSU) gave me a good foundation. It was the very first steppingstone for things that happened along the way.
- MSU degree:
- Bachelor’s in education, 1959
- Why he is a barrier breaker:
- Likely the first African-American to earn a degree from the university 1
After graduating from then-Southwest Missouri State College, Donald Thompson moved to the St. Louis area to work as a high school mathematics teacher in the public school system.
He earned a master’s degree in math education, and then taught at St. Louis Community College. In the past 50 years, he has become a prominent figure in math education. Since his retirement in 2000, he continues to study and teach math, traveling all around the United States to take courses and contributing to professional organizations.
You were likely the first African-American to receive a degree from then-SMS. Tell us about your experience.
My family was from Springfield, and we were very poor. If it hadn’t been for the affordability of Missouri State, I probably wouldn’t have been able to go to college. Another main reason I went to Missouri State was that (the Supreme Court) had just integrated the schools in ’54, and I graduated from high school in ’55.
I worked my way through college. I took most of my courses in the morning and worked at the golf course in the afternoon. Then I waited tables at the Colonial Hotel at night. It was hard work, but I enjoyed my time in college. I played in the band. I loved to keep up with all the sports, and I had friends on campus. Most everybody was pretty nice.
What inspired you to earn your degree in mathematics?
I’ve always loved math. I lived north of Springfield on Norton Road, which wasn’t in the city at that time. When I was young and had nothing else to do out there, I would sit around and play with numbers. I had a fantasy baseball team, and I kept scores and averages. Mathematics was always my strongest suit.
My two best friends went into the Army, and they tried to get me to go, too, but my mother wouldn’t sign for it because I was younger than 18. So I went to college instead and was in the Army ROTC band and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army. I’m proud of getting my degree.
Donald Thompson now lives in the St. Louis area and often comes back to Missouri State University for Homecoming.
What are your personal interests? What is something people might not know about you?
One thing is that one of my brothers, James Thompson, and I actually got married to two sisters. My wife, Lorraine, passed away in 2007, but her sister Esma and my brother are still married and live in Springfield. They attend a lot of Lady Bears games.
Another thing is, I love to travel. I’ve been to every state, and I’ve also been all around the world, to every continent except Antarctica. I’ve seen the pyramids in Egypt twice and traveled all around the Middle East and to New Zealand and Australia. I try to go somewhere at least once, and sometimes twice, a year.
In June, I’m going to go to Japan. I’m 78 now, and I’ve slowed down, but I’m still getting around pretty well.
How do you keep up with Missouri State and Springfield?
I’ve been coming down to Homecoming for the last two or three years, and of course I visit a few times a year to see my brother.
I will also be there in early spring, meeting a group of friends from St. Louis who are coming to Springfield for a bowling get-together. I used to be a good bowler. I’m not as good anymore, but I still go out there and try!
- Records from this time period do not indicate race, so it’s impossible to state this with 100 percent certainty, but archive materials support this claim. Thompson was told by the University at the time that he was the first African-American to earn a degree, and a 1974 issue of the Bulletin of Southwest Missouri State University, an official publication, lists him as such.
- MSU degree:
- Bachelor’s in geology, 1972
- Why she is a barrier breaker:
- First woman to be appointed state geologist in Missouri
Mimi Garstang worked from 1978 to 2008 in Rolla at the Missouri Geological Survey, part of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources that supports stewardship of the state’s water, land, energy and mineral resources.
She began as a technician, crushing rock in the laboratory and maintaining records about core samples on a drill rig. After other job opportunities with the survey, she became Missouri’s state geologist and director of the entire facility in 2000. A large part of her responsibilities included educating state legislators about geoscience, water and other natural resource issues. Since her retirement in 2008, she continues to consult in her field.
What inspired you to study geology?
I have a love for adventure and the outdoors, and loved geology from the first class I took at Missouri State. I was so fortunate to be able to roll up these passions into a career.
What projects stand out to you from your time in geology?
When I worked in the environmental geology section of the Missouri Geological Survey, I was able to apply my training to real-world issues in our own state. Many people do not realize that some of the uranium processing for the Manhattan Project during World War II actually occurred at Weldon Spring in St. Charles County. Some of the waste generated from the facility was not properly cleaned up when the facility closed. I was part of the team selected to oversee the cleanup of contaminated soil, water and buildings to return this area to safety. I was also involved with the remediation project at Times Beach, a town near St. Louis that was contaminated by dioxin, a toxic chemical. The town was evacuated by the federal government in 1983. We incinerated affected soil and debris then properly buried it. Today, the site is Route 66 State Park.
Mimi Garstang said she received personal encouragement from her MSU professors. “I have been able to apply so much I learned from them in my career.”
What special memories do you have from your time on campus?
I met my husband, Dennis, in Blair-Shannon House. He had come with a friend to an open house. He stole my heart when he literally caught my sweater on fire with a lit match while trying to perform a magic trick! He sent flowers to my room the next day with a sincere apology and we started dating. Now we have been married for more than 40 years.
I was also a cheerleader for wrestling and basketball and greatly enjoyed the opportunity to be part of Missouri State athletic events.
My last two years, I was a teaching assistant in the geology department. I taught basic lab classes. This experience was extremely rewarding and it provided me a strong foundation for future career assignments.
You were the first female state geologist in Missouri. Also, the current director and the most recent former director of the United States Geological Survey have both been women (after 130 years of male directors). Is the field of geology changing to attract more women?
I am not sure the percentages of women in geology have increased significantly since I left college. Even though geology is still predominantly a man’s world, I think people have recognized that a woman is certainly capable of doing the job, more so than in the past. Most careers in geology require a lot of outdoor work and travel. You cannot be afraid to get your hands dirty and must love science and adventure. Women who have these basic traits will not have trouble excelling in this profession. I am fortunate to have never felt like I was treated differently just because I am a woman, and I firmly believe that the best person for the job should be selected.
- MSU degree:
- Bachelor’s in education with mathematics emphasis, 1974
- Why she is a barrier breaker:
- Early female pioneer in technology field; founded a successful tech company
- She and her partner were the first couple to file a lawsuit in Colorado challenging that state’s ban on same-sex marriage
Margaret Burd is the executive chairwoman and co-founder of Magpie Software Services, a custom software design and development firm in Denver.
In 1985, she completed a master’s degree in computer science in Kansas and was hired by AT&T Bell Labs, where she joined a small but growing number of female software engineers. In the decade before, she taught high school math in Liberty, Missouri, where she met fellow teacher Rebecca Brinkman — now her partner of 35 years. The couple was among a group to win a court case that overturned Colorado’s same-sex marriage ban in 2014, and by the end of that year, Burd and Brinkman were married.
What were the challenges you faced as a woman in earlier days of the technology industry?
When I first started at Bell Labs, I was in a meeting with 10 guys working on software architecture. At the end, each person voted yes or no on the architecture, and they skipped me. Can you even imagine that happening in today’s world? They were so used to women in the room taking notes, not being an engineer with a vote. I could have let it go, but I was new and needed to speak up. I had to say, “Whoa, you know you just skipped me,” and they were really sorry. Everybody was trying to be better. AT&T put on conferences for managers to learn about the issues minority groups were experiencing, and they would figure out ways to fix it within the company, so attitudes toward minorities were changing.
Margaret Burd didn’t set out to be a pioneer in the technology field. “Mostly, I was thinking about how I was going to create a life that I really wanted.”
How did you decide to file to marry your partner in 2013?
Filing a marriage case was a pretty brave thing. Our lawyers came to us and said, “You guys are the perfect case! You’ve been together forever; you’re professional women,” but it wasn’t easy for us. We’re very happy it all worked out, and we’re pretty proud we took the chance; it felt good to be a part of that process. We put ourselves out there, knowing the national media would be at our house that night. We’re so happy we did it. It’s one of the life accomplishments of which I’m most proud.
How has your Missouri State education helped you succeed?
I had great mentors at Missouri State. The things I learned from Dr. Mary Jo Wynn and Linda Dollar really changed how I think about life, competition and working hard. The time I spent playing volleyball, softball and tennis there, particularly with those two coaches, was a game-changer for me.
Their coaching was not only about how to play sports — the actual physical playing of it — but how you treat each other as teammates and how you treat your competition. That has been pretty important in my life.
Lieutenant General Karen Dyson
- MSU degree:
- Bachelor’s in business administration, 1980
- Why she is a barrier breaker:
- First female finance officer to achieve the rank of three-star general in the U.S. Army
For Lieutenant General Karen Dyson, the United States military is the family business.
Her father was a special forces officer stationed in Germany, her two younger brothers were active in the military — one still is — and her husband is a retired Air Force officer. She began her part of the legacy when she accepted an ROTC scholarship to Missouri State. After earning her degree, she served the Army in capacities related to finance both in the United States and abroad. She was a commander in Iraq during Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990-91. In 2014, she made Army history through her promotion to three-star rank, becoming one of just a handful of women of that rank currently in the Army. She now lives in Washington, D.C., and works at the Pentagon.
What is the role of a finance officer in the Army?
I began my career working in an area called “disbursing,” which is cash management. We used to call ourselves “the bankers on the battlefield.” When we go to war we often buy things locally, and we often have to have cash to do that. In the Iraq war, where I was deployed for a year as a commander, we used to call our money “nonkinetic ammunition.” You have kinetic ammunition, which includes bullets and similar items, and nonkinetic ammunition, which is creating goodwill by paying local people to go to work for us. It was our job to acquire cash, store it, secure it, distribute it and then account for it, because ultimately we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we want to make sure we have strict accountability. We also handled payroll for soldiers.
Today, as one of the Army’s leaders, I’m responsible for managing the entire Army budget, and we’re working on the goal of achieving auditable financial statements.
You worked at the White House. How did that come about?
That was a phenomenal opportunity that came my way unexpectedly, which is how a lot of my career has happened — opportunities have come up, and I’ve found myself prepared to take advantage of them. In this particular case, I was called for an interview to work as a member of the White House Military Office, which supports the president. I was able to work at the White House for two years, from 2000 to 2002. I was the comptroller, so I was responsible for the money it took to run our operations supporting the president, and I was also the chief of staff. I made sure we had the resources to do what we needed to do.
If you’re familiar with history, you’ll realize I was there on 9/11. It was an incredible experience to be there that particular day, which really changed life as we knew it into this current environment that’s very uncertain and unstable in many areas of the world.
Do you think we’ll be seeing more women attain the rank of general in the Army?
This is such an exciting time for opportunities for women in the military. In December 2015, the Secretary of Defense made a decision to open all combat positions to women. Women can now attend Ranger School, and some have graduated from there. We’re all very proud of them, and it shows that there is a place for women on the battlefield in these combat-centered, traditionally male positions. This is important for women, because in order to attain most senior positions, you would be expected to have combat experience. This means that there will be more opportunities for women to gain this experience and achieve these senior positions in the future.
Do you see yourself as a barrier breaker?
I don’t see myself that way. I see myself as someone who has met opportunities with preparedness. I hope my contributions make a difference, and I hope the people behind me, especially the women who are coming through the ranks, can see that it is possible to work hard, stay focused and achieve goals that may seem beyond reach.
What interests and hobbies do you engage in outside of the military?
It’s hard to find personal time, but my husband, Jim Chamberlain, and I like to spend time with family when we can. We also like to go on bike trips with our friends. We meet with friends and get away for a weekend whenever we can. We also try to reconnect with other MSU graduates and the university through alumni events held in the D.C. area.
Anna Marie Presutti
- MSU degree:
- Bachelor’s in communication disorders, 1986
- Why she is a barrier breaker:
- First female executive for Nikko Hotels International
Anna Marie Presutti is vice president and general manager of Hotel Nikko, Inc., and Hotel Nikko San Francisco, a Tokyo-based company.
She has worked for chains including Hilton and Kimpton Hotels, and in 2006 was named the first female officer and general manager in the history of the Nikko Hotels International chain, which has properties in Asia, Europe, North America and the South Pacific. Under Presutti’s leadership, the Hotel Nikko San Francisco has been named by the San Francisco Business Times as one of the Best Places to Work in the Bay area for the past four years, earned an Energy Star award for nine consecutive years and earned a four-star rating from Forbes Travel Guide.
How did you enter the hospitality field?
During spring break of my senior year of college, a group of us went to Florida. While my friends went to Clearwater Beach, I jumped in my car and drove to Walt Disney World where I had an interview set up. They hired me for guest relations, and later I gave VIP tours, worked as a flight attendant on the company plane and went on tour with the Mickey Mouse hot air balloon. It was one of those crazy-cool jobs, and I had no idea at the time how extraordinary it was. I moved into event planning, and I was there when Disney had this groundbreaking “aha” moment. The company decided to build their own hotels and meeting spaces to capitalize on the demands in the convention and meeting market. They tapped me as part of the sales team.
What was it like to be named the first woman in your position?
Being the only woman was not really the part that was intimidating for me. It was being the only American. When I go to the corporate office or when I go to a big corporate meeting, it’s not me just being the only woman. It’s being the only American amongst 100 Japanese men. I just thought, “Just do what you’ve been doing and do your job well, and everything else will fall into place.” That’s how I approach it.
You’ve received many awards. What are you most proud of in your career?
Those are all special moments, but what’s really interesting about awards is they’re bestowed on me. It’s not really about me. I’m just the face of the organization. The reality is, if we weren’t doing the right things in the community and we didn’t provide great work and customer experiences, none of those awards would come. At the end of the day, I’m not the person creating those great experiences. My staff is. What I’m most proud of is I’ve done a really great job of surrounding myself with really bright, creative people. Otherwise, none of those awards would exist.
- MSU degree:
- Bachelor’s in education, 1986
- Why she is a barrier breaker:
- First female Missouri State athlete to have a jersey retired in any sport
Since the age of 15, Jeanette Tendai knew she wanted to spend her life working in education.
This goal led her to Missouri State where, in addition to pursuing her degree, she set records as the all-time scoring leader in Lady Bears basketball history. Her achievements were acknowledged when her number 42 jersey was retired March 6, 1986. In 1992, she was inducted into the university’s Athletics Hall of Fame.
For more than 30 years, Tendai has worked in education. She is currently the assistant superintendent of human resources at Kirkwood School District in St. Louis, a position she has held since 2008.
What inspired you to work in physical education?
When I was younger, I had really bad asthma and could hardly be active at all. Thankfully, I outgrew it. I fell in love with activity, and the coaches I had were among the people who made the biggest difference in my life. I wanted to work with kids and see the difference I could make for them.
I was lucky enough to get a job in the Kirkwood School District in 1991. I’ve been a coach, a teacher and a principal. Being a principal in a building with 600 kids is the best job. I love the energy of the kids and the way they care about the greater community and try to make things better.
How did it feel to see your jersey retired?
I’m not sure I understood the significance at the time. But later on, when I saw the other people who were joining me — like Melody Howard and Jackie Stiles — then I thought, holy cow, this is an amazing honor. It was the same when I learned I was being inducted into the Athletics Hall of Fame. It was heartwarming to know people I had a relationship with sponsored me and brought my name up, and that, after so many years, people wanted to recognize something I did when I was between the ages of 18 and 22.
How did the university help you succeed?
Attending school there and also being a part of the Lady Bears basketball team, I feel like I’m probably one of the most fortunate people in the world. It set me up for amazing opportunities for the rest of my life. I’ve worked in junior high and high school education for most of my career, and there isn’t a day that goes by that something I learned as a result of being both an MSU student and a basketball player doesn’t come into play. Working hard, setting a goal, getting knocked down and getting back up, learning how to work with people from all different points of view are all parts of that.
What other interests and hobbies do you have?
I still like to shoot around, but I haven’t played basketball on a league in many years. I like to visit Springfield often because my parents and my brother and his family all still live there. I try to keep up with the Lady Bears, but I have the worst timing with not being able to get into town at the same time they’re playing! But hopefully I’ll get lucky soon because I’d love to see them play. I also love spending time at the lake, being outdoors and being active. I’ll get to do more of that when I retire at the end of this school year. I’ll probably still do some consulting in the education and leadership realm, but I want to have both work and play.