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Obituary: Queen Fowler, the first African-American woman superintendent of schools in Missouri, dies

Queen D. Fowler
Fowler family

Queen Dunlop Fowler, a renowned educator who became the first black woman to serve as a superintendent of schools in Missouri, died on Friday, July 20 of Alzheimer’s disease at her home in University City. She was 84.

Services will be Friday, Aug. 3 atSt. Alphonsus “Rock” Liguori Church.

Fowler had distinguished herself as a teacher and education administrator when she accepted the daunting challenge of becoming superintendent for the Wellston School District. It was 1979, and the school system, like the once-thriving city, was in severe decline.

To effect change, she tapped a multitude of resources she had developed throughout the state and beyond: other school districts, businesses, financial institutions, consultants and many of the civic and social organizations with which she was affiliated.

In short order, her innovations and resources helped return the ailing system to academic viability. In the end, she successfully brought her unique touch to education for more than 40 years.

“Dr. Fowler dedicated her entire life to the field of education,” Henry Givens Jr., then president of Harris-Stowe State University, told The St. Louis American.

Givens knew firsthand about her dedication. The two had been classmates as they pursued their Ph.Ds. at Saint Louis University. In 1987, when Givens was called upon to rescue financially strapped Lincoln University in Jefferson City, he called on Fowler. She joined Lincoln’s board of curators and helped Givens put the historically black college back on sound financial footing. 

Several years earlier, she had performed an educational rescue of her own. In 1980, a year after Fowler became superintendent, the Wellston School District lost its state accreditation. She set about getting it back by implementing the Wellston School Improvement Project.

By 1982, the system had regained state accreditation, was preparing to participate in the area-wide desegregation plan, and the teaching staff had undergone a major reorganization. The school district “was beginning to see progress,” she modestly told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 

Fowler was especially concerned about helping and educating people who were “poor or disenfranchised,” said her son Darnell Fowler.

During her tenure in Wellston, she co-authored a peer-counselor training manual for high-school students. She remained with the Wellston School District until 1984, when she became executive director of pupil personnel services for Saint Louis Public Schools.

As head of the largest department in the school system, she provided oversight of psychologists, counselors, social workers and special projects. Few projects were more special than the time in 1988 when students witnessed their music teacher collapse from a heart attack before they were to perform at Kiel Auditorium. The teacher survived, but the students were traumatized.

Fowler said her team was prepared for such emergencies. The team faced an even greater challenge in 1995 when Mark Twain Elementary School's former principal was charged with molesting students in his school office.

Fowler, stressing the importance of making the children feel safe, marshaled a 10-member crisis team of counselors, social workers and a psychologist who provided support to students and some parents.

A ‘Queen’s’ reign

Queen Esther Dunlap Fowler was born Feb. 19, 1934, in North St. Louis, the daughter of Othur Dunlap, a store and restaurant owner, and Mary Alice Roberts, a homemaker.

After graduating from Vashon High School, Fowler earned a bachelor’s degree from Harris Teachers College (now Harris-Stowe State University) and a master’s and doctorate in education and counseling psychology from Saint Louis University.

She began her career in education in 1960, teaching second- and third-graders at Euclid Elementary School.

For 10 years prior to leading the Wellston School District, Fowler held a variety of educational positions at Washington University, including serving as a part-time professor and counselor in the Graduate School of Psychology and University College divisions.

After retiring from Saint Louis Public Schools, she formed Fowler and Associates Consulting Services, and she continued her numerous civic commitments. She devoted countless hours to local, regional and national community-based organizations, including the United Way of Greater St. Louis, the Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri, Hawthorn Children’s Psychiatric Hospital, YWCA Metro St. Louis, the Mayor’s Minority Health Committee Task Force and Dance St. Louis.

She was the first graduate of Harris-Stowe to serve on the school’s Board of Regents, a position to which she was appointed by then-Governor Bob Holden in 2003. 

She was a former president of the Gateway Chapter of the Links and the St. Louis Top Ladies of Distinction, president emeritus of the St. Louis Coalition of 100 Black Women, and a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

In 2005, she received the St. Louis American Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement in Education Award. In announcing the honor, the newspaper wrote, “A ‘Queen’ shall reign …” Fowler called the award “exciting” and “a humbling experience,” and gave credit to her many supports through the years.

Other honors included being named one of the local NAACP’s “100 Most Inspirational St. Louisans" in 2009, the Dollars & Sense magazine America's Top 100 Black Business and Professional Women's Award, and the National Council of Negro Women's Bertha Black Rhoda Leadership Award.

Her favorite pastime was dancing.

“She loved to dance and was a very good dancer,” said her son. “The older she got, the more she danced.”

In addition to her parents, Fowler was preceded in death by two brothers, Otis Dunlap and Ernie Dunlap; two sisters, Paula Jean Dunlap and Vera Dunlap Lisenby; and her former husband, Leroy Fowler Jr.

In addition to her son and his wife, Angela Caine-Fowler of St. Louis, she is survived by four brothers, Fred Dunlap of St. Louis, Carlos Dunlap and Lee Arthur Dunlap, both of Chicago, and Lari Dunlap of Maryland; and three grandchildren, Damon Fowler, Dorian Fowler and Donita Fowler Daniels.

Visitation will be held from 4-7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 2, in the Layne Renaissance Chapel, 7302 Austin A. Layne Jr. Way (West Florissant), in St. Louis.

An additional visitation will be held at 9 a.m., Friday, Aug. 3, with services immediately following at 10 a.m. at St. Alphonsus “Rock” Liguori Church, 1118 North Grand Boulevard, in St. Louis.

Burial will be in Calvary Cemetery. 

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