Barbara Allison was somewhat of a lifelong student. As a music teacher, lawyer and one of the first women to be appointed a principal in the Fresno Unified School District, Mrs. Allison was “hopelessly ambitious,” says her husband of 59 years, Roger Allison.
“She would say, ‘I’ve done this, I want to do something else,’ ” he said. “She was born like that.”
It came as no surprise that a few weeks before she passed away of a bacterial infection on June 10 at age 82, she joked that she regretted not having had more degrees. As a teen, she always wanted to go into medicine.
“We were at the doctor’s about two weeks ago and she told the doctor, ‘the only initials I don’t have yet is M.D.,’ ” Roger Allison said. “That, she didn’t quite get to fulfill. If she had started earlier, she would have.”
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Mrs. Allison became the district’s sixth woman principal when she took the position in 1973 at Centennial Elementary School. In a sign of the times, The Bee wrote an article about her promotion with the headline “Woman Wins School Principal Post.”
Barbara Allison is remembered by her children, grandchildren and husband as someone who fought for her rights in the world, and always kept learning.
Born in 1935 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, it was music that called her, and not specifically teaching. She began writing music at 7 and played in a symphony orchestra at 13. She earned a scholarship to Northwestern University in Illinois where she graduated with a bachelor’s in music education in 1956. That’s when she moved to the Bay Area and began teaching.
She met her husband at a gas station across the street from the school in Santa Clara where she worked. Roger Allison worked for the Shell Oil Company at the time. He chuckled as he remembered how he got her phone number.
“I saw a lady in a Pontiac was getting gas,” Roger Allison recalled. “I asked, ‘Do you have a Shell credit card?’ I filled out a form for her and I put it in my pocket.”
The couple married on March 25, 1958, which is also around the time Mrs. Allison earned her second bachelor’s degree, this time from San Jose State, in music composition. The two went on to have two daughters and a son, and now have nine grandchildren.
Mrs. Allison had been a vice principal in Cupertino and was in an administrative program for teachers in Santa Clara, where she lived. When her husband’s job transferred him to Fresno, she expected to have the same opportunities.
Instead, Fresno Unified told her there weren’t many opportunities for women, and she got the same answer in Clovis. “In the ’50s and ’60s, the Bay Area was further advanced,” explained Roger Allison.
When Mrs. Allison discovered that there was a lack of female administrators and a resistance to hire any, Roger Allison said, “that got her a little … concerned.”
Instead of giving up, she took a job as a teacher and went back for her third degree, a master’s in school administration from Fresno State that she received in 1967. She was put in a trainee pool and was finally chosen in 1973 to head Centennial Elementary, the first woman principal in 17 years in the district.
So she was done with that, said Roger Allison, and she moved on to something else.
In the late 1980s Mrs. Allison began to attend San Joaquin College of Law, working at Centennial by day, studying by night. She graduated in 1990 and at age 55 retired from teaching. She passed the bar exam in 1991 and began working for law firms in Fresno. She eventually began her own private practice, only retiring from that in 2004, Roger Allison said.
She still spent her time playing music. Pianos and other instruments are part of the home she’s shared with Roger Allison in northeast Fresno for the past 37 years. “We have a baby grand (piano) in the living room and a small piano in the front room,” he said. “She played violin, sax, all of them. If you could hum it, she’d play it.”
Mrs. Allison is remembered by her children, grandchildren and husband as someone who fought for her rights in the world, and always kept learning. She didn’t settle for what she knew she could have, her husband said.
“(When) they told her they didn’t have room for her in their program, that upset her,” Roger Allison said. “She wanted to prove to them that she could, and she did. Now Fresno Unified has many women at the administrative level.”
Born: Jan. 11, 1935
Died: June 10, 2017
Occupation: Retired school principal, teacher, attorney
Survivors: Husband Roger C. Allison, daughters Karen Harley and Kirsten Shurtliff, son James Allison, and nine grandchildren.
Services: Held earlier