Mackey takes the helm at the Fourth Ward School
In typical school days fashion, names are scrawled on the walls along the stairwell leading to the lowest level of Virginia City’s Fourth Ward School.
They are the signatures of the last students, those who attended just before the school closed its doors in 1936. If Barbara Mackey, the school’s new executive director has her way, they will always be there.
“The building’s history is a dynamic that changed over the years,” she said. “The challenge is creating a restoration that preserves that gradual evolution.”
Soft spoken and congenial, she sits at a small desk in the far corner of a classroom where the school’s first- and second-graders were taught. She seems comfortable amid these surroundings, in a way so much a part of her past. Mackey taught at the elementary and high school levels while raising two children.
Now in her mid-50s, she has worn many hats over the years including businesswoman and archaeologist and feels prepared her for this new role.
“I’ve always been involved with historical preservation efforts, and I’ve always wanted to work as an archaeologist,” she said. “It feels like everything I’ve done in the past was in preparation for this job.”
Part of a Navy family, Mackey was born in San Francisco but spent most of her youth in the East. Her father was both captain and commander of ships during his Naval career and the family moved along the coast to cities like Newport, R.I., and Brooklyn, N.Y.
She received her bachelor’s degree in social sciences, together with her teaching credential from Wilkes College in Pennsylvania in 1968, then traveled for a few years, working at a variety of jobs before settling down in Greenville, California with her husband. There, she raised her children, taught school, started her own small gift shop business, and refurbished an old farmhouse.
“There wasn’t a whole lot to do in Greenville,” she said with a smile. “You had to create your own world, so I dabbled in everything from handicrafts to canning.”
Her life took on a new dimension when an archaeologist walked into her gift shop, and they began talking.
“I had always wanted to be an archaeologist, but when I was in school it was hard to break into the field,” Mackey said. “She suggested I volunteer with the Forest Service and once I tried it, I was hooked.”
Her volunteer work led to a part-time job as a seasonal employee with the Forest Service, identifying and flagging off archaeological sites in Northern California. Wanting more, she started classes and ultimately earned her master’s in anthropology from the University of Nevada, Reno, in 1994.
Following that, she worked with an archaeological restoration management company in Virginia City for seven years.
Any time a project involves federal lands, developers must adhere to environmental assessments. She was responsible for surveying the population, identifying the archaeological sites and then determining their significance.
The work was satisfying, but she said she is looking forward to the creative, hands-on challenges at the Fourth Ward School.
Reconstruction of the school’s North Tower is in progress and will add restrooms and a catering kitchen. The myriad of ongoing activities and events will continue, but she would like to see more interpretive signs and perhaps an audio tour. She would also like to conduct an archaeological dig just outside the building.
Mackey is divorced and has two children. Erin, 27, is a lawyer in Sacramento and Brian, 23, is a technical editor for a software firm.