Kansas City, Kan., and its education community are mourning the death of Gloria Willis, a longtime teacher and principal who capped a 41-year career by serving on the school board for two more decades.
Willis, who was still an active board member, died Thursday morning at age 85 after a brief illness.
“Remarkable woman. I think that many of us aspire to leave even a fraction of the legacy that she had left,” said Kansas City, Kan., Superintendent Cynthia Lane. “She has touched, literally, thousands of kids’ lives and their families. ...
“She really was influential on a very personal level with so many. She really was a giant in Kansas City, Kan., as an advocate for kids and for quality education.”
In 2004, Willis was inducted into the Mid-America Education Hall of Fame at Kansas City Kansas Community College.
A memorial posted on the school board website says:
“Mrs. Willis always placed the needs of children first in her work with the Board and the district administration. She also strongly believed in the important role that parents play in their child’s education, and frequently raised the question during meetings: ‘Have we reached out to the parents? What do they think?’ ”
When she retired in 1994, “I couldn’t fathom the idea of being home and not doing something for the district,” Willis would later recall.
In the autumn after her retirement, she began volunteering at Hawthorne Elementary School. The following spring, district patrons asked her to run for the school board.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would run for any kind of office,” she said. “I consented to run not thinking that I would be elected.”
Born in Texas and growing up in the 1940s, Willis once recalled being told that there were only two career options for college-educated African-American women: nurse or teacher. Willis’ older sister chose teaching, and so did she.
Willis graduated from Tillotson College in 1952 and joined the Kansas City, Kan., district in 1953, when it was still racially segregated.
Married in 1957, she had to persuade the district’s superintendent to let her continue her career because married women at that time were not allowed to teach.
Willis taught at five elementary schools over 18 years before becoming a central office consultant. After a year as principal at Grant Elementary, she moved to Quindaro Elementary, where she was principal for 13 years.
Willis lauded and took great pride in the district’s First Things First school reform initiative in 1998 that helped foster improvements in test scores across the district.
“All children can learn,” she said in 2004, “and we must all work together to make our children successful lifelong learners.”
Willis was preceded in death by her husband, Russell. A daughter, Sonya Willis, works in the district.
“Gloria Willis was one of KCK’s most dedicated and caring public servants,” Mark Holland, mayor/CEO of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., said in a written statement. “Her commitment to our children set a standard that the rest of us would do well to follow. This is a tremendous loss not only for our schools, but our entire community.”