Hometown: Fayetteville, North Carolina
Family: Husband Calvin, two adult daughters
Education: B.A., Chemistry, Fayetteville State University (NC); M.L.S., Library and Information Management, Emporia State University (KS)
Occupation: Retired Principal Information Toxicology Specialist (Wyeth/Pfizer)
Current Community Involvement: President of the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association; member of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual Community Commemoration Committee; NY State Underground Railroad Consortium; Women’s Rights Alliance of New York State, and noon Rotary International.
As a young woman growing up in North Carolina, Jackie Madison was certain about two things — she wanted to work in the sciences and she wanted to travel the world. After defying gender stereotypes of the times by earning her undergraduate degree in Chemistry, she decided to join the U. S. Army as a way to experience life in different parts of the world. She served during the Vietnam War, and was also stationed in Germany where she met her husband.
The young couple eventually settled in Fort Riley, Kansas where they raised their two daughters. Madison was working a part-time job as a library cataloguer when her talent caught the attention of her boss, who suggested she consider Information Management as a career. With an infant and a toddler at home, Madison grabbed the bull by the horns and enrolled in a Master’s degree program at Emporia State University, which offered long distance learning. The classes were offered as intensive weekend sessions involving travel to locations across several states. “It was a really harrowing time,” she recalled, “but I had a lot of support from friends.” Remarkably, Madison completed her degree within two-years.
With her impressive educational background combining Chemistry and Information Management, it is no surprise that Madison was a highly sought-after candidate for jobs in the pharmaceutical industry. Immediately after graduation, she was snapped up by Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratory in Washington state. After five years she took a position with Wyeth/Pfizer in Champlain, New York to work in its toxicology sector. “My role involved obtaining information for toxicologists to make sure they had what they needed to conduct their research,” explained Madison.
When Wyeth/Pfizer downsized in 2010, Madison made the decision to retire. Since then, she has expanded her community service and involvement. One of her many passions is the local history of the Underground Railroad. She is currently working with a group charged with re-writing a historical book about the Underground Railroad in the Beekmantown area, and writing her own book chronicling local African Americans from the 19th to the 21st centuries. She recently shared her inspiring story and her insights with Strictly Business.
SB: What important lessons did you learn early in your career?
JM: The importance of education. I was raised by my aunt to a resounding theme — it is important to be a lifelong learner. You don’t stop learning until the day you die. The one thing that cannot be taken from you is education. You can lose things, but what you learn is always yours.
SB: Who was your most influential mentor?
JM: My high school chemistry teacher. I had a natural love of science, but I had such a difficult time when I took chemistry. At that time, they didn’t do much to encourage women to take science. This teacher told me that I could do anything I wanted to, and he worked with me to teach me what I needed to do to succeed. When he took time to help me along, it made me sure that science was the field for me.
SB: What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
JM: You can actually do anything when you put your heart and soul into it. But you have to really work at it and not toggle back and forth. If something is really important to you, focus on it and continue until you get it accomplished.
SB: What advice would you offer to someone starting their business career?
JM: Find someone working in your chosen career who you trust and try to get them to be a mentor for you. This is true in all careers, but it is especially true in the sciences because they can be somewhat political. It is a rocky road, more so now than it was when I started out.
SB: Tell us about your approach to management and leadership.
JM: When it comes to management, I am more of a laid-back manager. I don’t like to be on top of people and encourage them all the time. You assign tasks, give a timeline, and then wait until they come back to you to see how they have followed through. That being said, you also need to know each individual. Some people need more encouragement and reminders. Management is understanding each person you hired and what they need to make them successful.
SB: How do you know when you have succeeded?
JM: Success is when you are happy. A lot of people think success is having money or power. I have seen people have both, and still not be happy. Success means that you have accomplished something that is dear to you. Once you’ve accomplished that, you feel like you could conquer the world.
SB: When you are having a difficult day, how do you stay positive?
JM: I like to smile and laugh a lot. I think this is important for everyone. It keeps me going. I have decided that you can’t fix everything, but at the very least you can find something in it that will bring a smile or a little bit of laughter. If you can do that, it helps you feel better.
SB: If you could talk to your younger self, what advice would you offer her?
JM: I would tell her to listen to people. Don’t just hear them, but really try to understand what they are saying.
SB: If you could start your professional career over again, what would you do differently?
JM: I might have stayed longer in the military so I could travel more. The military helped me to learn skills right away, and instilled a disciplined routine. For young people, that discipline is really important.
SB: Who is your favorite author?
JM: Toni Morrison. She gives you a glimpse into what it is like to be African American in the United States, not just what I believe it is.
SB: How did you get involved with the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association?
JM: I had a keen interest in the topic when a co-worker, Carol Thompson, asked me to help with designing a website. After meeting Don and Vivian Papson and learning more about the local history, I was really surprised to find that there was so much underground railroad activity here. The more I learned, the more it got a hook on me. I saw so much positive history for this community in these stories. Then in 2017 through 2019 I saw this history repeating itself. We had an exodus of people immigrating north to Canada through the New York border, taking the same route that people took back in the 1800’s. It just seemed like it came full circle, and I had to stay involved.
SB: What is your favorite quote and how does it speak to you in your life?
JM: “We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.” This quote by Maya Angelou is a resounding message to keep going no matter what. At some point, we all get down, thinking that we haven’t done enough. At those times you have to have something that keeps you pushing through when you are having a difficult time.
SB: If you could have dinner and spend an evening with any well-known person, living or dead, who would you choose and why?
JM: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I’d like to talk with him about his philosophy of peacefulness. I’d like to know how he got to the conclusion that peacefulness was the right way, especially when things weren’t going his way. I’d also like to know what it is that he did not like about Malcolm X’s approach to change.
SB: What do you do in your free time?
JM: I have a dog and two cockatiels, and they need a lot of care. I grow grapes and make wine. I’ve started to do some canning, and I am trying to learn how to do house renovation projects with my husband.
SB: What do you believe the North Country community should do today to ensure a prosperous future?
JM: There need to be more discussions in our community about race. I don’t know if we can totally fix it, but we need to start removing some barriers. One of the ways we could do this is to have discussion groups with people who normally would not talk with each other – people with differing viewpoints. You would have to create safe spaces and allow people to say what they feel. Of course, people have to want to do it for this to work.