Dionne Phillips Bagsby, who broke racial and gender barriers throughout her life in Fort Worth, died Jan. 10 at age 82 surrounded by her loved ones and close friends. She had been battling pancreatic cancer since April of 2018.
Mrs. Bagsby was the first woman and first African-American to be elected to the Tarrant County Commissioners Court and was a trailblazing community advocate for the disenfranchised.
She received the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 High Impact Legacy Award Oct. 23 at the Chamber’s Combined Area Council Luncheon at Frost Tower.
A memorial service for Mrs. Bagsby is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday, Jan. 18, at First Presbyterian Church, 1000 Penn St., Fort Worth.
“We are grateful for the overwhelming outpouring of love and support from friends and family from all over the country,” the family said in a statement.
“Our mother had an affinity for all people and committed herself to improving the lives of women and children. She leaves a legacy of public service that will impact and empower residents of Tarrant County and Texas for generations to come,” the family said.
“I was very sorry to hear of the passing of Dionne. She blazed the trail for minorities as well as women,” said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley. “She was a big help to me during my first years on the court and was a great mentor to folks both working for the county and preparing to graduate and begin new careers. She will definitely be missed.”
Mrs. Bagsby was born in Phoenix, Illinois, to Paul William and Ann Della (Wicks) Phillips. She was a certified speech pathologist. She moved to Fort Worth with her husband, James A. “Jim” Bagsby, who served on the Fort Worth City Council, 1977-87, and their children in the late 1960s.
Mrs. Bagsby graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University, earned a Speech/Pathology Certification from George Peabody College for Teachers and a master’s degree from Texas Christian University. She was an alumnus of Leadership Fort Worth (LFW) and received the organization’s Distinguished Leadership Award.
"Fort Worth lost a true leader, role model, one of my closest friends and mentors in Dionne's passing,” said Mayor Betsy Price. “Dionne Bagsby was an inspirational leader and a true trailblazer. Dionne led the charge for historic change in our community, from leading the peaceful integration for Fort Worth ISD to opening new doors for minority employment.”
Mrs. Bagsby ran for the Tarrant County Precinct 1 Commissioner seat in 1988 on a shoestring $34,000 budget, defeating 20-year incumbent Richard “Dick” Andersen in the Democratic primary and defeating Republican and former Fort Worth Mayor Woodie Woods in the general election.
That launched a historic career in local government.
“Dionne was a dynamic personality. She had a passion for inclusiveness and fought for it on several fronts as often as she could,” said Devoyd Jennings, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce.
“Her effectiveness was not always in a public fight, but she would do so when necessary. She loved making a dynamic difference in Fort Worth/Tarrant County,” Jennings said.
During her tenure on the commissioners court, 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.
Mrs. Bagsby led the commissioners court to include women and minorities in all appointments for the county’s many boards and commissions.
And 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.
“Dionne was my friend for over 40 years and was my mentor in county government. I’m in my 28th year in county government so she had a profound influence on my life,” Brooks said.
“And although she held elective office, she always denied that she was a politician; rather, she preferred to describe herself as a public servant. And to me she was the consummate public servant,” Brooks said.
“She taught me many things about how to serve – how to serve with honor, with dignity, with purpose. Hers was a life that was extremely well lived,” Brooks said. “Our friend lived her life on her own terms and she died the same way – on her own terms.”
Price said Mrs. Bagsby was a model.
“Having been a teacher, principal, county commissioner and so much more, Dionne was a model public servant who poured her heart and soul into everything she did. A trusted voice in our community and a respected advocate for women and children, Dionne's mission was to leave Fort Worth a better community than she found it,” Price said.
“Dionne was a true inspiration for so many. She was a trailblazer for minorities and women in North Texas,” said Rosa Navejar, president of The Rios Group and former head of the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“As a minority woman you are judged differently. Dionne, never stood on the sidelines, she spoke with confidence and conviction and was a mentor for other women to do the same. She gained the respect of all around her,” Navejar said.
“Her legacy will be written about in our city’s history,” Navejar said.
The 79th Texas Legislature recognized Mrs. Bagsby’s community service 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 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. The Youth All Sports Complex in the City of Crowley also bears her name.
Mrs. Bagsby was known for her straight talk.
Martin Noto, president and CEO of the Fort Worth region for First Financial Bank, and moderator for Chamber’s 2018 High Impact Legacy Award event, told of her response when people were encouraging her to run for county commissioner.
“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.
Navejar confirmed that.
“Dionne was always there to mentor women and men, but you also knew if you asked for her advice, you better be ready to hear what she had to say. She told you when you were wrong and praised you when you were right,” Navejar said. “A true lady, a dear friend and I will miss her smile, wisdom but most importantly her friendship.”
Mrs. Bagsby remained a committed community activist as long as her health permitted it.
Past and current service included 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.
“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,” Mrs. Bagsby said at the Chamber event.
“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.”
Survivors include a daughter, Dionne Bagsby Jones, and a son, James T. Bagsby (Renne); grandchildren: Kirbe Dionne Jones, Kelli Nicole Jones, Josiah David Thomas-Bagsby, Elijah Bagsby; five step-grandchildren; and a brother, Paul William Phillips Jr. (Patricia).
Includes material from Business Press archives