Erma Johnson Hadley often described herself as “a little girl from Leggett, Texas, who thought she could never do anything.” She proved herself so wrong. At the time of her death on Thursday, Mrs. Hadley had been an educator for all of her adult life, influencing the lives of untold numbers of students.
She was chancellor of the multicampus Tarrant County College. She had served on the boards of important institutions in Tarrant County, the DFW Airport board and the JPS Health Network board among them. “She was an extraordinarily powerful woman,” Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks said. “She was on the forefront of every cause that affected the African-American community.”
She worked to expand college opportunities and make sure no one was “locked out of the system,” he said. “If Erma had her way, there would not be a person — there would not be a child — that Tarrant County College did not touch in some way to help them on their journey for a successful life,” Brooks said Mrs. Hadley died of pancreatic cancer. She was 73.
The first woman and African-American to lead the college, Mrs. Hadley oversaw its steady growth. Under her leadership, TCC’s enrollment grew to 57,424 last fall, an increase of 26.7 percent from the fall of 2008. On her watch, TCC opened an aviation learning center at Alliance Airport and more recently, an innovative energy technology school at its south campus. “Chancellor Hadley was laser-focused on the students we serve,” said Louise Appleman, president of the TCC trustees.
“Every decision she made was driven by her deep desire to provide access to higher education for our community and for that education to pave a path to success in today’s workforce. We will miss her terribly and I personally have lost a dear friend.” Vice Chancellor Angela Robinson has been named as acting chancellor.
A LIFE AT TCC
Mrs. Hadley began her career at TCC in 1968 as a business instructor at the northeast campus of what was then called Tarrant County Junior College. She later moved into administration and rose through the ranks until she was named TCC’s fourth chancellor in March 2010, replacing Leonardo de la Garza. Her accomplishments were the subject of a Texas Trailblazers piece by KERA in 2014, in which Hadley described her earliest memories of loving school. Ardenia Gould said her mother was a “fierce advocate for education and for young people.”
“I feel tremendously blessed to have had her as a mother,” Gould said. “She was an icon and a trailblazer, but to me she was my mother.” Gould said her mother often began speeches or discussions by singing “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood. A beautiful day in the neighborhood — a beautiful day at TCC.”
Mrs. Hadley learned the lyrics when mother and daughter watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It was her mantra, Gould said. TCC Trustee Kristin Vandergriff, who worked with Mrs. Hadley for about 13 years, also recalled how Mrs. Hadley often entered a room with those lyrics. She said the chancellor helped build a first-class higher education institution with “grit and tenacity.”
“The chancellor has been really truly the finest person I have ever had the opportunity and privilege to work with,” Vandergriff said. Dionne Bagsby, a former Tarrant County commissioner, said she was among a group of Mrs. Hadley’s friends who prayed with her most mornings via a conference call. “She told everyone about her prayer group and encouraged people to fight the scourge of cancer,” Bagsby said.
Building relationships between TCC and area four-year colleges was a continual effort for Mrs. Hadley, who worked on partnerships to help community college students continue their education at four-year institutions. University of Texas at Arlington President Vistasp M. Karbhari said higher education has lost a “tremendous leader, a champion of education and a wonderful lady.”
“UTA will be forever grateful for Chancellor Hadley’s commitment to building a true partnership between our university and the Tarrant County College District and for effectively creating new opportunities to help TCC graduates earn their four-year degrees,” Karbhari said in a statement. “We mourn her passing and will be recommitting ourselves to the tasks at hand and to the initiatives she started and championed for student to ensure that her legacy endures.” U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, remembered Mrs. Hadley as someone the community cheered on in her successes.“The fact that even after she made it very high up in TCC, she still stayed in” the same neighborhood, he said. “The community was very proud of her.”
Funeral arrangements were incomplete on Thursday. In addition to her daughter, survivors include her husband, Bill Hadley, and sisters Betty Griffin and Doris McGinnies of Livingston. Staff writer Anna M. Tinsley contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.