Retired Tarrant County Commissioner Dionne Phillips Bagsby, the first woman and African-American to be elected to the Tarrant County Commissioners Court and a trailblazing community advocate for the disenfranchised, was honored with the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 High Impact Legacy Award.
The award was presented to Bagsby on Oct. 23 at the Chamber’s Combined Area Council Luncheon at Frost Tower.
“Ms. Bagsby is a treasured community leader whose advocacy has opened many doors for women, children and minorities in Tarrant County,” said Chamber President and CEO Bill Thornton. “Her legacy mirrors and inspires our focus on nurturing more regional collaboration and diversity to move our city forward.”
“I am deeply honored and humbled to receive the Chamber's 2018 High Impact Legacy Award,” Bagsby said. “I am pleased that the chamber recognizes my commitment to mentoring those dedicated to the economic growth and vitality of Fort Worth and Tarrant County.”
Bagsby, an Illinois native who moved to Fort Worth with her husband and children in the late ’60s, was among the pioneer educators who worked for peaceful integration of the Fort Worth ISD. She often was called on to provide training and mediation.
She became a well-known and respected community activist and a charismatic volunteer dynamo in many local, state and congressional campaigns. Her husband, James A. “Jim” Bagsby, served on the Fort Worth City Council, 1977-87.
In 1988, persuaded by community-wide support, she ran for public office, entering the race for Tarrant County Precinct 1 Commissioner.
“She got calls from people to find and elect more diverse people to the Commissioners Court,” said Martin Noto, president and CEO of the Fort Worth region for First Financial Bank, who was moderator for the event.
“Three young African-American attorneys she had mentored, encouraged or fussed at about being an activist called and said, they found the woman who can win but that she could not run the campaign,” Noto said.
They told her she was their choice to be a candidate.
“Dionne replied, ‘You have got to be kidding me. I don't have the temperament and I don't do subtle very well,’ " said Noto.
Since the filing deadline was close and she didn’t have the fee, Bagsby reached out to legendary attorney and political advisor, Dee Kelly.
“She called him the next day and asked him how to bow out gracefully,” said Noto. “Dee told Dionne, ‘You know what, you can't raise money, but I've watched you, you know how to raise armies. Go raise an army, the money will follow.’ She did just that.”
With a shoestring $34,000 budget, she defeated 20-year incumbent Richard “Dick” Andersen in the Democratic primary and prevailed in the general election against Republican and former Fort Worth Mayor Woodie Woods.
Bagsby’s historic victory launched an equally historic career in local government.
During her tenure, 1989-2005, she cleared paths through entrenched race and gender bias that led to a new era in minority employment and participation at the county level and greater resources for education and health care for women, children and the disadvantaged.
Bagsby led the commissioners court to include women and minorities in all appointments for the many boards and commissions.
She hired the first Tarrant County African-American precinct administrator, Roy C. Brooks, who succeeded her as Precinct 1 Commissioner upon her retirement and who serves in that post today.
A certified speech pathologist and advocate for early childhood education, Bagsby’s dedication to public health care, education and equal opportunity yielded a wide array of advances such as establishment of tuition reimbursement for county employees, training of neighborhood women to serve as health aides and initiation of a countywide immunization program.
She was and continues to be a staunch advocate and funding resource for many nonprofit organizations, ranging from women’s shelters to Circle T Girl Scouts and the Business Assistance Center.
The depth and scope of Bagsby’s community service were lauded by the 79th Texas Legislature in a resolution honoring her on her retirement after “a distinguished 16-year tenure that has been characterized by integrity and excellence.”
The resolution noted in particular her service on the boards of the Van Cliburn Foundation, Tarrant County Housing Finance Corporation and Community Justice Council. Also noted was her service “beyond the borders of Tarrant County,” including service on the boards of regents of Stephen F. Austin State University and Texas College and as a board member of the High Frontier Residential Treatment Center in Fort Davis and Fort Worth.
Tarrant County’s Southwest Sub-Courthouse was renamed the Dionne Phillips Bagsby Southwest Sub-Courthouse after her retirement and was rededicated this past September. The Youth All Sports Complex in the City of Crowley also bears her name.
Bagsby holds an undergraduate degree from Illinois Wesleyan University, Speech/Pathology Certification from George Peabody College for Teachers and a master’s degree from Texas Christian University. She is an alumnus of Leadership Fort Worth (LFW) and is the recipient of numerous awards, including LFW’s Distinguished Leadership Award.
Bagsby remains a committed community activist with past and current service on the boards of the Fort Worth Symphony, Social Learning Systems, Presbyterian Night Shelter, Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber Young Leadership Development Program, United Way of Tarrant County, Jubilee Theater, Baylor All Saints Hospital, and Dickies Arena.
Her personal interests include Bible studies, travel, reading and the visual and performing arts.
A frequent public speaker, Bagsby encourages women to seek public office at all levels. But she urges everyone to serve others.
“Don’t worry about who gets or takes credit for the service,” she says. “Just get the service needed to those who are in need. Good always comes back to you if it’s not sought.”
Speaking to the attendees at the luncheon, Bagsby said: “Thank you so very much. We should continue to understand that a community is only as good as the people who work and serve it, and there is always work to be done.
“I have no time for people who say, ‘Oh, I'm bored.’ Well, I'm retired, but if you're bored, just call me up, my number's not unpublished, and I'll find you a job to do."
– Robert Francis