Upon hearing of Winston Churchill’s death, American statesman Adlai Stevenson said, "There is a lonesome place against the sky."
Since the death of Chancellor Erma Johnson Hadley, that same sense of loss pervades TCC. It is difficult to imagine the College without her. She was so much, and for so long, an integral part of our fabric. Not only the fabric of TCC, but also of Fort Worth and Tarrant County, the African-American community, her church and home, the community college world – anywhere with wrongs to be righted, and people to be helped and uplifted.
"She was a transformational leader," said longtime friend and TCC Trustee Gwen Morrison. "She lived a transformational life."
Hadley’s life at TCC began when she came to Northeast Campus in 1968, 26 years old and the ink hardly dry on her master’s degree. Discovering she was one of only four African-Americans on the faculty, she confronted President Jan LeCroy, but in a gentle – for her – way.
"You’re discriminating against me," she told LeCroy, explaining that he would be able to tell at a glance at a faculty meeting if any of the four were absent. "I can’t play hooky!"
LeCroy laughed, but got her point. "Find more like you," he replied, "and I’ll hire them." She took him at his word, and before long, such people as Daisy Dubose, Liz Branch and Patsy Gray joined the then Tarrant County Junior College family.
Hadley moved to a larger stage, reluctantly leaving the classroom to eventually become director of personnel and then vice chancellor for human resources. She wrote TCJC’s first Affirmative Action Plan in 1973 and made sure it was not just words on paper, working to ensure that every qualified applicant got a fair shake. When it came to equity and diversity, she was TCJC’s conscience.
Hadley’s canvas expanded when she became chancellor, and she zeroed in on student success. She took a hard look at performance data, did not like what she saw and set about dragging the College out of its comfort zone. She led the charge into Achieving the Dream, mandated common textbooks for every course and initiated the expansion of non-traditional teaching modes – dual credit, e-learning and Weekend College.
Such sweeping initiatives were not always popular. "I realize the faculty hasn’t always been pleased with the way I lead the College because I am absolutely focused on student success," Hadley once said. "And when I look at all of our data, I know that we must change something. We must. I either lead with boldness ... or I wait for everybody else to say, ‘Let’s do this.’"
Hadley’s dealings with faculty leadership, though sometimes contentious, were always conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect. And she was, as ever, a teacher.
"Chancellor Hadley taught me an awful lot about the essence of being a true leader," former Joint Consultation Committee Chair Stephen Brown said. "She told me early in my tenure, ‘Stephen, after this year of service as the chairperson concludes, you will be a much different person than when you started.’ I can now look back and discover so many different ways in which I did grow as a leader and as a person, and so much of it is due to the ways in which she taught me and challenged me."
In addition to creating programs for student success, she was not at all shy about seeking funding for them. Once, a developer who had received a tax break said he just didn’t know how to thank the College. "Well, I do," Hadley piped up. "Someone from our foundation will contact you tomorrow."
But it was also in quieter and private, though passionate, conversations that she pleaded TCC’s case. One such talk with Pete Geren, president of the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, led to a $250,000 grant for the Academic Enrichment Program, also known as Boot Camp.
"Erma’s passion for her mission was palpable and irresistible," Geren said. "My board members were pleased to provide support for her life-changing work. What an inspiring servant leader she was!"
She worked for student success not only from the mountaintop, but also on a personal level, establishing the Chancellor’s Emerging Leadership Program. Graduate Velvet Trotter met Hadley at the group’s luncheon last May. "Here was this beautiful lady in a fabulous suit, with striking eyes and a big smile," she said.
As the party broke up, Trotter lingered for a chance to speak with Hadley one-on-one. "I grabbed her hand, looked her in the eye and said, ‘Thank you. Because of your program I am able to be something, to feel something.’ We both started crying, and she said, ‘Come here, you poor baby,’ and put my head on her shoulder."
Hadley’s heart was big enough to take in the world outside TCC. She was a tireless worker in Fort Worth’s African-American community, said Devoyd Jennings, president of the Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce, which Hadley helped found. "She created paths forward for not only being the first in many endeavors in our community, but she also was making sure that we as a community had a voice that was being heard," he said.
Hadley also was a dedicated ambassador for the wider community, taking its messages worldwide. Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price was with her on a trip to China in September 2014. "She was the star of the show," Price said. "No matter who else was in the room, wherever Erma was, that’s where the action was."
She impacted many groups, but always had time for individuals. "Not only was Erma my business partner at RSH Concessions and my son’s godmother," said Norma Roby. "More importantly, she was my trusted, faithful, supportive, loyal friend for over 30 years. She brought the same level of dedication and commitment to our friendship as she did to everything else she touched."
So, choose your description – warrior, dynamo, trailblazer or megastar. All were offered in online tributes by people who now hope she will rest in peace.
Scoot over, Gabriel. There’s a new angel in town.