By Shannon O’Brien and Jamil Oakford
As TCC board of trustees members walked years ago through the halls of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., then-chancellor Erma Johnson Hadley came across a pair of people, former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly.
Without hesitation, the community college chancellor walked over to meet them.
“She stopped right in the middle of everyone and spoke to Gabby,” board member Gwendolyn Morrison said about the experience. “She introduced herself, introduced the whole board.”
Morrison said it was a moment that seemed meaningful to both Giffords and Hadley, but it also was representative of who the tenacious leader of TCC was.
“She was a very friendly, easy, approachable person,” Morrison said.
Hadley, who died of cancer in 2015 after becoming the first woman and African-American to lead the college, left a legacy of student success and student-focused policies.
Vice chancellor emeritus Bill Lace, a friend of Hadley’s, described her as a force of nature and someone who was always observing and finding ways to improve.
“Her sense of honor, her sense of right or wrong and her tenacity to make sure people were treated fairly were many of the things that stood out in Erma,” Lace said. “She was impetuous, always wanted things better, saw things that needed to be improved and needed everything to be carried out immediately. She drove herself harder than she drove the rest of us.”
She started her career in 1968 as a business instructor on NE Campus and kept working her way up until she was named TCC’s fourth chancellor in March 2010. Under her influence, TCC opened an aviation learning center at Alliance Airport in Fort Worth and an innovative energy technology school on South Campus.
By fall 2014, TCC enrollment had increased 26.7 percent from fall 2008. Hadley also built relationships with universities in the area to help students continue their education at four-year institutions.
“Erma always used to go up to students and talk to them,” board president Louise Appleman said. “She would wave her finger and always tell them to stay the line or stay the course in better terms but to always work toward your goals, and that you can’t sharpen a knife on velvet.”
Hadley worked not only for TCC but also the surrounding community. She served on the boards of DFW Airport, JPS Health Network and other institutions in Tarrant County to make sure her influence helped not only students but society as a whole.
It was during her community work that Morrison and Hadley crossed paths.
“Of course, my first impression was that she was always a strong, forthcoming person,” Morrison said. “She was very active in the community.”
Morrison said she and Hadley worked with several community programs like the United Negro College Fund and Fort Worth Girls Club.
She admired how honest Hadley was, something she knew would serve Hadley well after becoming chancellor. If she didn’t like something, understand or agree with it, she would let people know, but she was always polite about it, Morrison said.
“Be prepared to answer a bunch of questions,” she said. “She’s gonna want to know as much as she can about what you’re doing and why.”
When Morrison joined the board, she gained a new perspective of Hadley.
“I always admired the decisive and inclusive reports that she would bring to the board about personnel matters,” Morrison said.
As chancellor, Hadley was laser-focused on the college’s position in the community and how it could help serve the modern student, Morrison said.
“[She was] very interested in TCC being on the cusp of what was going on in the world and [that] we were leaders in policy,” Morrison said. “She wanted us to be on the rising edge of that trend.”
The Erma C. Johnson Hadley Scholarship Fund was established by the TCC Foundation in her memory, something that measured up to her reputation as a chancellor who was student-driven.
“She was a person who did take an interest in young people,” Morrison said. “She always paid attention to the young people around her of all ages. She always expressed an interest in them and developed a relationship with them.”
Hadley left behind 40-plus years of impact at TCC and strong impressions from those who were close to her.
“You could expect her to be friendly, well-spoken, well-dressed, respectful but perhaps challenging,” Morrison said. “She was straight-forward, and she had meaning for everything she said and did.”