Erma Johnson Hadley grew up poor, like so many others in tiny Leggett, a rural logging town in East Texas.
By the age of 3, little Erma was begging to attend school with her older sister, Betty, and wept every day when she could not. The next year, the teacher relented and told her parents to let her stay, even though she was still too young.
So would begin a lifelong quest for education, which would lift Erma Johnson Hadley from poverty to respected community leader as the first female and African-American chancellor of the multicampus Tarrant County College.
Mrs. Hadley was laid to rest Saturday, as hundreds of friends, family members and fellow civic leaders filled the pews of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth to remember the woman who had still called herself “a little girl from Leggett.”
Mrs. Hadley died Oct. 1 of pancreatic cancer. She was 73.
“How do you say goodbye to an icon?” asked Michael Sorrell, a friend and the president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas. “You do not. You honor icons. You honor them by living a life that would make them proud.”
Near Mrs. Hadley’s rose-covered casket, members of the Erma Johnson Hadley Community Choir sang hymns like He’s Still Good and I Shall Wear a Crown.
Colleagues praised Mrs. Hadley’s tireless work to expand college opportunities to all people and to increase the profile and student enrollment of TCC, where she began her career as a business instructor in 1968.
Under her leadership, TCC’s enrollment grew to 57,424 last fall, a 26 percent increase from 2008. On her watch, the college opened an aviation learning center at Alliance Airport and, more recently, an innovative energy technology school at its South Campus.
“Her passion for education cannot be matched,” Mayor Betsy Price told attendees. “She was committed to making TCC the best college in America. This community is better because Erma Johnson Hadley served.”
Calling her a trailblazer, fearless leader and servant, Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks said Mrs. Hadley knew firsthand the importance of education and spent her life advocating for others.
“By her own indomitable spirit, she not only raised herself out of poverty but showed others how to do the same,” Brooks said. “Thank you for pouring your heart into this community, for the future generations who may never know you.”
Mrs. Hadley served on the boards of important institutions in Tarrant County, the DFW Airport board and the JPS Health Network board, among numerous others.
The chancellor often said, “ ‘To whom much is given, much is required.’ And that is how she lived her life,” said Paulette Reddick Turner, president of the Fort Worth chapter of The Links, Inc., a volunteer and service organization to which Mrs. Hadley belonged.
Friends recalled Mrs. Hadley’s relentless optimism and that she often began speeches or discussions by reciting her mantra, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.” Another favorite mantra was, “Don’t whine. Do something.”
Dionne Phillips Bagsby, a friend and former Tarrant County commissioner, told mourners that the chancellor would not have wished for long speeches or tears on this day.
“What I want is a commitment from every person here to become a mentor, teacher or advocate for someone in need,” Bagsby said.
After Mrs. Hadley received her cancer diagnosis, she turned to a group of friends and prayed with them most mornings via conference call, Bagsby said. On Saturday, she recited her friend’s favorite prayer.
“The light of God surrounds me. The love of God enfolds me. The power of God protects me. The presence of God watches over me.
“Wherever I am, God is.”
Survivors include her daughter and son-in-law, Ardenia and Spencer Gould; granddaughter, Spencer Emery; husband, Bill Hadley; and sisters Betty Griffin and Doris McGinnies of Livingston.