Citizens Of The World, But Tied To Their Community

Posted on 03/06/24

Leslie and Barrett.jpg

The following article appeared in the March, 2024 edition of Whitefish Bay Living magazine. It is being posted here with permission from the magazine’s publisher.

By Julia Jaegersberg

I first heard about Leslie Spencer-Herrera regarding her position as volunteer president of AARP Wisconsin. After contacting her, I was also excited to learn about her professor husband, Barrett McCormick, their fascinating lives together and a cat named Ping. They also have a son, Spencer McCormick, who now lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and baby.

Volunteering, an important part of life

Leslie believes volunteerism gives back more than you give. “I’ve been so enhanced by various volunteer activities throughout my life. Now in retirement, the work I’m doing with AARP has been so fulfilling. People often think AARP is about nothing but aging, but I see it as helping the whole family and communities. I have so many friends and neighbors who are caregiving to loved ones, and AARP can provide resources to help them.”

In Leslie’s acceptance speech as AARP’s Wisconsin president, she stated, “I’m so honored to have been appointed to this important position. I’ve seen how AARP succeeds at local, state and national levels to improve the quality of life for those over 50. I hope to learn the hopes and needs of all Wisconsinites over 50. And to recruit more AARP volunteers to meet those hopes and needs.” She wishes some of her neighbors will become AARP volunteers, too.

Barrett has also engaged in active volunteering helping Afghan refugees settle in Milwaukee. For the past several years, he’s done everything from help clean apartments to help for an easier transition to learning the rules and regulations to eventually help these refugees become citizens.

A graduate student connection

It was graduate studies at UW-Madison in political science that brought them together.

Leslie came to Wisconsin from Indiana and after receiving her undergrad degree from Indiana University. Barrett moved to Madison from Seattle, Washington, after graduating from the University of Washington.

“We have a real Wisconsin story as my husband and I met during the departmental picnic,” shares Leslie. “We then agreed to go sailing together as he belonged to the UW Sailing Club. However, in all the crowds – and before cell phones – we didn't see one another the day of our first date. So, we both left pretty mad. Forgiveness and sanity prevailed and the rest is history! We married in 1976 in Indianapolis in an extremely small wedding.”

They settled here in Milwaukee as Barrett pursued a career at Marquette University as a professor in political science and recently retired after 35 years.

Leslie’s journey

Leslie’s story begins as a little girl growing up in Mexico. “Along with her family, I immigrated from Mexico at the age of nine,” she explains. “My family lived in various locations in the southern part of the US, first landing in Arkansas. After experiencing much unfriendliness and difficulty, my parents wanted to find a place where people were ‘nice.’ They’d interacted with Americans a lot in their business in Mexico and remembered where they’d met nice people. Indiana won out.”

Leslie still has friends in Indiana and her mother had remained there until her death last year. In addition, Leslie spent a year in Mexico as an adult. Where she taught English, visited family and explored the country.

She earned her master’s degree in Political Science from UW-Madison and another master’s in Curriculum & Instruction with a focus on Adult Education from UW-Milwaukee. She also earned a master’s-level certification from Marquette University on Dispute Resolution.

“My career, education and volunteer activities have revolved around analyzing issues, developing plans and helping organizations – both in the non-profit and for-profit sectors – to provide services to improve workforce skills,” says Leslie. “I focused on developing training programs that helped individuals access jobs and more skilled positions.”

Leslie says this passion to assure that people have access to education and training came from her experience in Mexico, immigrating to the US – and seeing that the path to success is providing access to skills, credentials and resources to have the best-paying jobs possible.

“My longest stint in training and workforce development was with Chrysler and the UAW,” she notes. “I spent more than 15 years preparing training programs and project managing new training implementation with a particular focus on high-skilled technical training.”

Locally, Leslie also worked for what’s now known as Employ Milwaukee and a sister organization that covers Kenosha, Walworth and Racine Counties.

Barrett’s impressive career

Barrett came to Marquette University to begin a tenure-track position, which he did gain in August of 1984 and he served as a professor for more than 35 years. “My focus was on Chinese politics,” explains Barrett. “I worked hard to acquire fluency in Chinese and spent many summer breaks conducting research in various locations in China.”

At Marquette, he valued his work with students – ensuring they could graduate in a timely manner and have a great educational experience.

“And before retiring, I also worked as a coordinator of the university’s Multi-Disciplinary degree in International Affairs,” says Barrett. “Throughout my teaching career, I assisted students to gain skills and understanding of our world that helped them find careers with international businesses, military leadership and governmental positions, such as with the CIA.”

Spencer’s life in New York

Barrett and Leslie have a son named Spencer McCormick who graduated from Whitefish Bay High School in 2004 and was the salutatorian.

“Today, Spencer’s 38 years old,” says Leslie. “He first went out East to attend NYU’s Film school, which he’s parlayed into a career of web design and maintenance in a corporate setting. He and his wife Rachel and our grandson Micah live in an area of Brooklyn called Bay Ridge, which is very diverse and close to the water. From certain parks and rooftops, you can see the Statue of liberty.”

Little Micah is only five months old. Leslie says they’re getting to know the person he will be. “He just got a tooth, and he’s working hard at standing up and rolling over.”

Living overseas

Throughout Barrett’s career at Marquette, he and Leslie had opportunities to live overseas.

“Leslie and lived in China while I was doing research,” says Barrett. “We lived in a very austere environment, though plush by Chinese-student comparison. All the foreign students lived in our dormitory, so we became close friends with people from many countries. Leslie taught English to sophomores at the university.”

They also spent two years living in Australia. “They have deep interest in China due to their location,” says Leslie. “Barrett was asked to participate in a two-year research program focused on China.”

Leslie says Australia was a wonderful place to live. “People are very open and friendly there. The scenery is incredible and the wildlife amazing. We could go on a 15-minute hike from our door and encounter kangaroos.”

They both enjoy having guests from all over the world and visiting new places. “This fall, we traveled around Taiwan and found it a charming, lovely country,” shares Leslie. “Recently, we also spent time in Italy following the Giro de Italia, which is like the Tour of France – but the race moves around Italy.”

Cycling & gardening

Barrett started cycling in high school. During the summer, he’ll ride his road bike from Whitefish Bay to Port Washington and back. “All his work life, Barrett bike-commuted to Marquette, even on very cold days,” shares Leslie. “His biggest accomplishment bike-wise was biking with his brother from Seattle to Milwaukee in 28 days!”

Leslie and Barrett both follow competitive cycling both locally and the world races. “We love to go to Waterloo and visit Trek and the various events it hosts,” says Leslie. “We also have a tandem bicycle, which is the only way I can keep up with my bicycle-achieving husband.”

Leslie says she’s also an avid gardener, recently focused on growing beautiful dahlias. “I love when people are walking down the street and ask to come into the yard and see the flowers more closely.”

Home near Klode Park

Barrett and Leslie have lived in the Klode Park area for more than 25 years. “We’d previously lived in another area of Whitefish Bay but were looking for a larger home,” says Barrett. “Driving along the lake headed north, our realtor told us to turn right. We were amazed. We didn’t even know this neighborhood existed.”

They both enjoy that Whitefish Bay provides an old-fashioned American feel.

“We participated in the AFS foreign-student-exchange program and were struck by how many other local Whitefish Bay families also opened their homes to students from around the world,” concludes Leslie. “There’s a real sense of community here – with immediate neighbors helping one another.”

This story is provided by AARP Wisconsin. Visit the AARP Wisconsin page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.

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