Alumni Profiles

Fighting for Kids
M.-A. Lucas '64 transformed child care in the miltary.

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Lisa Nugent/UNH Photographic Services

When American soldiers go to war, who watches the kids? For more than 30 years, that job fell to Margaret-Alice "M.-A." Haggart Lucas '64, who became the founding director of the Army's Child, Youth and School Services in 1980. By the time she retired in 2011, Lucas was overseeing the care of more than 400,000 children at 125 locations. That adds up, she once calculated, to 297,451 diapers and 594,902 "liquid baby rations" a day being dispersed on her watch.

In the beginning, she had her work cut out for her. One prominent expert had referred to the military child care system as a "ghetto." A government report had noted that more than 70 percent of child care facilities violated safety regulations. It was time for reform—but even the much-needed reform met resistance. "We were called child care Nazis, pink steamrollers, child-care Mafia, and worse," says Lucas. Eventually, though, the system Lucas and her service counterparts implemented was hailed as a model by Congress and national child development organizations, and it was recently described by The New York Times as "perhaps the most impressive achievement of the American military."

Lucas, who worked as a civilian in the Army, is modest about her accomplishments, speaking with the diplomacy of someone seasoned in bureaucracies. Yet throughout her career, she skillfully negotiated the balance of military demands and children's needs, of government standards, adequate funding, and the realities of working parents.

When military leaders reported seeing babies bundled in car seats in the bleachers during early-morning drills, for instance, Lucas made the case for extending child care hours. She harnessed the Army's culture of regulations—there were even guidelines for setting up bulletin boards, she says—to advocate for program standards and training staff.

In 1986, charges of widespread sexual abuse rocked an Army day care center and drew the attention of Congress. Lucas testified during hearings that led to the passage of the Military Child Care Act, which mandated sweeping reforms. Under her guidance, the Army built world-class facilities and instituted background checks, training, and pay increases. She also forged alliances with partners like 4-H, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and university cooperative extension programs.

Lucas notes that the evolution of military child care paralleled the shift from a conscripted to a volunteer Army. "I give the Army credit for understanding that if you go to a volunteer Army, you're going to have families," she says. "The whole reason for this program is to keep soldiers on the job. You recruit the soldier, but you retain the family."

Remembering an era when high-quality child care was nearly unheard of, Lucas describes the irony of forging her career in early childhood education—before she worked for the Army—while struggling to put together care for her daughters, Caroline and Stephanie, now working moms themselves. At first, they accompanied Lucas to the center she directed; later, family and friends helped with after-school care.

"It also helps to have a supportive spouse, and my husband, John, excelled in that role," she says. "Of course, work and family conflicts can sometimes cause tension." One of those moments was captured for posterity on school-picture day, when Lucas was away and coached John on their daughters' hair preparation from afar. The family still laughs when they see those photos.

A child development major at UNH, Lucas credits the university with building her confidence during a time when opportunities for women were largely limited to teaching and nursing. "I felt like I could do anything," she says. That confidence is precisely what Lucas needed as she launched her effort to care for kids in the military. "We always had to make the case for how child care supports the mission," she says, noting that, for a long time, the program was touted only for the way it supported soldiers. "I knew we had crossed a line," she says, "when the generals started asking, 'Well, what about the kids?'"

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