What I've Learned Since College: An interview with community leader Mary Alyce Burleigh
© Washington State University
Two years ago Mary Alyce Burleigh bought herself a bright yellow scooter. The former Kirkland mayor and current city council member uses it to zip around town to meetings and local fundraisers. She finds she is as busy in her retirement as she was during her 29 years as a teacher for Redmond High School. Recently she parked her scooter and perched on a city park bench in downtown Kirkland to talk with Hannelore Sudermann about life, civic involvement, and getting 80 miles to the gallon.
My goal was always to be a high school history teacher. I really took a broad range of courses at WSU. As a high school teacher you have to know a little about a lot of things. When I graduated in '64, I got what I believe was the only high school history position on the west side open to a woman. In those days most history teachers were coaches, and the only teams were for guys.
I taught at Burlington Edison for a year, and decided I really needed to go back to graduate school. I just felt I wanted to know more. So I reenrolled at WSU. It made me a much better history teacher. What you learn in graduate school, which you really didn't focus on as an undergraduate, is how history is written. I learned to focus as much on how and who wrote the history as much as what they wrote.
I decided to serve my community. After that first year of graduate school I went into VISTA [Volunteers in Service to America]. This is during the Vietnam War and the beginning of the civil rights movement. I went down to Florida and South Carolina to work with migrant workers and textile workers. We were tutoring and doing things like nutrition and sanitation education. It was like going to another part of the world. The white textile workers wanted nothing to do with us, and the government didn't want us to work with blacks. . . . What I learned was invaluable, but I realized, "I'm not doing anything for anybody here." So I resigned and came back to Washington. I was lucky enough to land a job at Redmond High School, where I spent the next 29 years.
I met my husband when I was involved in the Eugene McCarthy [presidential] campaign in 1968. . . . I've always had an interest in civic involvement. That VISTA experience, that was enough to radicalize anybody: To be in America and have third-world conditions. I think also my education at Washington State contributed. . . . It was just the time. You saw that social justice was something you had to start working on in a serious way.
I taught in a British comprehensive high school for a year (1977-78) on a Fulbright grant. I was teaching Anglo-Saxon invasions and Tudor-Stewarts as well as 20th-century world [history]. If you've seen the Sidney Poitier movie, To Sir with Love, it was like that. It was a very tough school, and there was very limited equipment. There weren't enough textbooks, and discipline was not good. I was considered to be a great success, because my kids were sitting down in class.
[In the States] we moved to North Rose Hill. When we annexed to the city of Kirkland, it seemed apparent that we needed to get ourselves organized as a neighborhood. I was one of 12 people who organized the North Rose Hill Neighborhood Association. We wanted to get the neighborhood involved in civic affairs and try to get people a sense of community and belonging. Now Kirkland has a neighborhood association in every neighborhood. They are not created by the city. They are independent units on their own.
I ran for city council in 2002, after my husband died. I have learned that most of the problems facing Kirkland or any other town are regional in solution. For example, the bumper-to-bumper traffic through the center of town between four and six p.m. is commuter traffic. They'd rather be sitting down here than sitting on the freeway.
One of the fun things I do is represent the Association of Washington Cities on the Shorelines Hearings Board. Anybody who wants to, say, build a dock, if they don't get a permit, they can appeal to the Shorelines Hearings Board. If they do get a permit, and the Department of Ecology doesn't like it, we hear it. We've given up on Lake Washington in terms of people porcupining it with docks. The real issues are up in the San Juans and in Puget Sound. Docks have a negative impact on habitat, salmon habitat. Our job is to project the shoreline and the habitat.
Towns can change. Where the library is now, used to be a gravel potholed parking lot. Where the marina is now, same thing. You certainly didn't have any quality restaurants. Everything you wanted to do, you went into Seattle. We never came downtown, frankly, the first 15 years we lived here. There was nothing to come down here for. Now I'm down here all the time. This is the heart of our town. It's sort of our living room. People think of Kirkland as a small town with a small town feel. But we're the 17th-largest city in the state. We have close to 50,000 people. What gives you that? It's that residents know people. That's what creates a sense of community. That's what being a small town is--it's feeling connected with the community.
I'm so grateful that the people on the city council back in those days had the foresight to take a look at the waterfront, which was all shipyards and oil tanks, and think, "That's going to be parks." They had this vision to say that we could have these parks. They really set the town and culture. Our job is to not mess it up, but to build on it.
We do things gracefully, if possible. With Tent City [a homeless encampment that circulates through church parking lots in eastern King County], the goal was to make it work and engage the community in the process. I got a call one Friday afternoon from a pastor telling me Tent City will be here next Saturday. By Monday, the city had an informational Website up. We went through a public process and tried to address peoples' concerns. There were some people who went to whatever community Tent City was coming to, and rile up people. When Tent City was moving in, I went over and welcomed them, and moved a few boxes. One of these guys reported me to the attorney general for violating state law or something. That prompted a headline in the Eastside Journal: "Mayor Criticized for Helping the Homeless." I have that one in my scrapbook.
A former student of mine found the scooter on Craig's List. She said, "Why don't you get this one?" So I did. It's a Honda Metropolitan. For a place like Kirkland, where you can basically ride all over the place, it's just fun. And it's different and kind of cute. It has character. It was named by the previous owners "Bumble," so I put some bees on it. I don't ride it in the rain or in the dark. And I try to stay off the major arterials.
I love our community, and I love my neighborhood. I spent last Saturday morning spreading bark at Mark Twain Elementary...Our school district spends zero on maintenance and landscaping. And we think it's important that a school looks like it's valued and it looks good from the outside. We spent four hours picking up litter and spreading bark around, so when the kids come to school on Monday it looks good.
I play on the over-55 coed softball team, The Kirkland Classics. They're a fun bunch. But this was not a great season for me. I got hit in the back of the head with a line drive and ended up with five staples. And then I dove for a ball in the infield and landed on my face and got a concussion. Other than that, it's a lot of fun. I think there's a different mindset. People don't look at it as retiring and sitting in a rocking chair. It's more, you retire from your job and you get involved with something else.
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