For Evelyn Wright Moore, it always seemed to come back to school. Perhaps it was attending classes during the last days of segregation that gave her the fire that lit her education advocacy, but friends said a light went out when she died Friday, Dec. 15.
“Nobody had more heart than Evelyn,” said friend Mary Ruth Rhodenbaugh. “She loved her family, she loved her huge community and she loved her Head Start children and their families.”
Moore grew up in Brazoria County, the third of eight children in a farming family. Until the ninth grade, she attended a segregated school — her classmates and teachers were all African-American until 1966, when Sweeny High School integrated just as Moore began ninth grade.
It wasn’t an easy change. Moore later would tell friends how uncertain it was to be a black teenager thrust suddenly into a changing education system.
“Here you are as an African-American, and generally just a handful is in the classroom with all the white children and with a white instructor that replaced the familiarity of being in a classroom of no white kids with a black teacher who is helping to mold our future,” she said of her schooling after integration for a July story in Brazos Monthly magazine. “It seemed like watching Dr. Martin Luther King advocating to us that this was going to be a great thing.”
Education was a passion in her family; all her siblings attended college, most earning an advanced degree. Chasing higher education gave Moore a passion for the root of knowledge, and she found her calling in early childhood learning.
“When I came to Brazoria County in 1982 as Director of Planning and Allocations, Evelyn was director of the head start program and they received some funding from United Way. She was a powerful advocate for the kids and childhood education practices,” said Tom Fowler. “When I went in to see their operations, I was surprised because they had a very advanced childhood development program. It was very nicely equipped and the teachers were really involved with the students. I admired her work.”
Moore was president and CEO of Brazoria County Head Start Early Learning Schools, Inc. for more than 40 years, fiercely dedicated to providing a sturdy start for youngsters of all backgrounds and income levels. Not content merely to lead one organization, she also served as president of the Texas Association for the Education of Young Children, board member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Southern Early Childhood Association and Texas Head Start Association and a member of the National Head Start Association.
“Words really can’t describe what Evelyn Wright Moore meant to Head Start. She was our fearless leader,” CFO and VP of Business Operations Jacqueline Mercer said. “She surely was a champion for providing low-income children from Brazoria County with quality service so they can have a head start on entering public school. She pretty much dedicated her life to doing that. She cared about not only the children and families but also the staff that she employed.”
Mercer said the company would never have made it so far without Moore’s leadership, and so many children wouldn’t have achieved futures quite so bright as the ones they found under her care. Moore’s legacy, Mercer said, is the continued quality of head start services in the place she loved.
“She had such a passion for people. I knew her professionally as the leader of Head Start, which had such an impact on my kids,” said Pat Montgomery, Superintendent at Angleton ISD. “She made an impact in the lives of so many children.”
Montgomery said people often acknowledge how important Head Start programs are in formative years, but they rarely consider the long-term effects the way an educator does. Montgomery will be seeing Moore’s influence for years to come, in the success of high school students who had that solid foundation, she said. But it’s not just that educational leadership she’ll miss.
“On a personal level, to know Evelyn is to be a better person. She lived her life through action and the love for people that she had,” Montgomery said.
Friends say Moore had a full heart, but also a level head that kept Brazoria County Head Start afloat even when other early learning institutions were facing trouble. She always had an eye to the future and a firm grip on financial aspects.
“Working with Evelyn has provided us with many learning experiences.,” Rhodenbaugh said. “She is the one who taught me to ‘think with your head, not with your heart.’”
Moore was a passionate leader, but she followed her own advice. Fowler recalled working with her on the board at the Brazosport Memorial Hospital, and Moore’s initial reluctance to see the hospital merge with a bigger organization when funding got tight. She worried that letting go of local control would mean bad things for the hospital.
“She was not too enthusiastic until one night at a board meeting when we made a presentation. I worked very hard on it,” he recalled. “When I got done, Evelyn actually applauded. I thought, “Maybe we can get this done.” She was a very powerful voice on any committee. She didn’t always have a lot to say, but when she spoke she spoke forthrightly.”