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Obituary of Betty J. Robinson: Loved and led Head Start

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jully 17, 2013: Betty Robinson enlisted in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty nine years after the war began in 1964. She remained a foot soldier for nearly 40 years. Her battles were fought on behalf of children through the Head Start program.

She began working with the school-readiness program in Carrollton, Ala., a town with fewer than 1,000 people. When Mrs. Robinson died this week, she was head of YWCA Metro St. Louis Head Start, which annually serves three times as many children as the population of Carrollton.

“She was the rock of Head Start,” said Adrian Bracy, chief executive officer of YWCA Metro St. Louis. “Her contributions go so deep; they expand beyond young children to the family as a whole.”

Ms. Robinson, who loved children, loved teaching and lived and breathed Head Start, died Sunday, July 14, of complications of lung and bone cancer at her home in O’Fallon, Ill. She was 67.

Her services will be Saturday, July 20, at Morning Start Missionary Baptist Church in East St. Louis.

Renewing faith

Like President Johnson, Ms. Robinson briefly taught school. She was a first grade teacher for four years in Pickens County, Ala., Carrollton’s county seat.

The federally funded program was designed to mitigate the circumstances of low-income families often living in turbulent neighborhoods.

In 1973, Ms. Robinson was running a half million dollar Head Start program in Alabama. In 1984, she moved north, becoming assistant director of Head Start in East St. Louis. It was administered by Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. With a budget of $2.1 million, she coordinated seven Head Start centers for more than 700 students. She succeeded in cutting in half the program’s operating cost for transporting nearly 500 children.

When YWCA Metro St. Louis began administering the St. Louis County Head Start program in 1991, Ms. Robinson became chief officer and eventually director.

In 2001, she spearheaded the effort of YWCA Metro St. Louis and Grace Hill to take over Head Start in St. Louis from the Human Development Corp. The program had been languishing, apparently because of mismanagement, and had a long waiting list.

"People had lost faith in Head Start," Ms. Robinson, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "You don't get a second chance to get it right too many times."

She got that chance and grew the agency’s operating budget from $2 million to $23 million in little more than a decade. The program now serves nearly 3,000 children and is the second largest in a four-state region (Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska).

“Through the efforts and vision of Ms. Robinson,” said Stacy Johnson, Head Start assistant program director, “we served as many children as possible.”

Keep on pushing

The numbers did not begin to tell the story. Cecelia McHaynes-Rigsby did.

McHaynes-Rigsby mother, Katherine McHaynes, put her in Head Start when she was a baby. That program set her on the road to college. But that higher-education enrollment wasn’t as successful: McHaynes-Rigsby admits that parties led to academic probation in her first year of college.

“My mother said I had to go to school or go to work,” said McHaynes-Rigsby, now 38. “She called Ms. Robinson.”

McHaynes-Rigsby was hired as a Head Start nutrition aide, preparing meals for the children in Head Start. She says she did a fine job, “but Ms. Robinson didn’t want me to stay in the kitchen; she wanted me and others to grow.”

Ms. Robinson pushed her and McHaynes-Rigsby moved into the classroom.

“After several years of working in the classroom, I was promoted to a management position,” McHaynes-Rigsby said.

With grants and scholarships that Ms. Robinson “found” for her just as she had for many other young women, McHaynes-Rigsby eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in early childhood development.

“She would have made us all get PhDs if she could have,” laughed McHaynes-Rigsby, now manager of the Jennings Head Start.

A phenomenal woman

Betty Jean Robinson was born Aug. 16, 1945, in McCloud (now Macon), Miss., the daughter of Jesse Ruffin and Lula Mae Ruth. She received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Livingston University (now the University of West Alabama) in 1973. She earned a master’s degree in elementary education from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville in 1986.

Ms. Robinson was a member of the National Head Start Association, from which she received the 2007 Leadership Award, and served as president of the Missouri Head Start Association. Her board service included the National Benevolent Association Emergency Children’s Homes, the St. Louis Community College Early Childhood Education Advisory Board, the Missouri Head Start Collaboration Advisory Board and the Child and Family Development Task Force.

Additional honors included the Excellence in Education Award from the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Sentinel’s “Yes I Can” award. She received the What’s Right with the Region award from FOCUS St. Louis honoring the YWCA for excellence in educational programming. St. Louis City Mayor Francis Slay proclaimed May 11, 2002, Betty Robinson Day in St. Louis, as did the city of Overland, Mo. In 2000, she was named Head Start Region VII Administrator of the Year.

“She was a phenomenal woman,” McHaynes-Rigsby said.

Ms. Robinson’s survivors include her husband, Lester Robinson; her children, Melanie (Shawn) Harmon of Birmingham, Ala., Tommy Clark of O’Fallon, Ill., and Shayla Clark of East St. Louis; her siblings, Sharlene (Melvin) Williams, Dorris (Dothey) Hopkins, Berniece Craig, Brady Ruffin and Eddie Ruffin; and three grandchildren.

Visitation for Ms. Robinson will begin at 11 a.m. on July 20, with services following at noon, at Morning Start Missionary Baptist Church, 606 N. 59th Street, East St. Louis, Ill. 62203.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.