[NOTE: This is the first in a series of profiles of our 2012 Trio of Stars, whom we will honor at a brunch on May 19. Next week we will profile Celia Israel and then Carrin Patman.]
A string of firsts usually comes after Wilhelmina Delco’s name: the first African American elected to public office in Austin, the first African American elected to the Texas House from Travis County and quite possibly (although we’re not certain) the first African-American woman to appear in a swimsuit on a magazine cover at the age of 80.
In the sunny living room of the home she and her husband, Dr. Exalton Alfonso Delco, Jr., have shared on Astor Place since moving to Austin in 1957, the former legislator and lifetime education activist trotted down memory lane, pausing from time to time to smile or frown or hammer home a point. It’s been an eventful journey of highs, lows and passionate activism.
“My husband says I have a built-in radar for non-paying jobs,” Delco said, perched near tables covered with awards, photos and memorabilia from a life of public service and family dedication. “My mother and father were precinct captains in Chicago, and our dinner discussions every night were about politics and current affairs.”
The first of five children, Delco’s mother was a probation officer, and her father was a court deputy in Chicago. While earning a degree in sociology from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., Delco met Exalton and married him two years after graduating. They have four children — three daughters who live in Austin and a son who lives in Oregon — and nine grandchildren. Wilhelmina and Exalton will celebrate their 60th anniversary this summer.
“My first involvement politically was with the School Board, and I did that for my kids,” said Delco, whose election to the AISD Board in 1968 made her the first African American elected in Austin. “I didn’t get into it for political reasons. I was an issue candidate and didn’t really have personal political ambition beyond that issue.”
In fact, education has been a life-long passion and one that has driven her political career. With strong encouragement from Ann Richards and others, Delco served one term on the School Board and then launched a successful campaign for the Texas House in District 50, making her the first African American elected to the Legislature from Travis County. She served from 1974 to 1995 and chaired the House Higher Education Committee until she was appointed Speaker Pro Tempore in ’91.
A founding member of the Austin Community College Board (“I just love community colleges. They’re flexible and everyone can benefit”), Delco remains a strong voice for education and has been awarded 10 honorary doctoral degrees. She chaired the Board of Trustees at Huston-Tillotson University and serves as an adjunct professor in the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas. The brainpower in the Delco household is impressive: Exalton Delco is a career academic, with a PhD in biology.
Not surprisingly, Wilhelmina Delco is appalled by the 2011 Legislature’s assault on public and higher education funding.
“It’s tragic,” she said. “People don’t want to contribute to the good of the people anymore, so they cut programs that benefit everyone. They only want their taxes to pay for paving their streets and benefiting their families. Years ago, the GI Bill created a vibrant middle class, and kids had nurturing, supportive schools. Now those people I call ‘tea-bag terrorists’ don’t think they should have to pay for others. It’s really tragic.”
And while civil rights issues have improved over the years, Delco worries that African Americans are becoming “irrelevant” in Texas politics as the Hispanic population surges.
“The climate is better, but participation isn’t what it used to be,” Delco said. “Hispanics have the potential to swing the elections, so that’s the focus. When I was first elected to office and didn’t burn down the building, we started electing blacks to every level of government. There was a tacit understanding that we should be visible in elected office, but that’s not the case now. Yes, it’s a reflection of the population, but we ought to recognize the importance of African Americans and the path we created. I think sensitivity has diminished, and I think we have to show people they’re still relevant.”
The election of President Obama was a high point for all Democrats, especially African Americans. But the backlash from Republicans and Tea Party types since ’08 has been tinged with racism. Rick Perry and the Republicans’ retrogressive policies have been especially harmful in Texas, and Delco believes Democrats have to come together to turn out the vote.
“Our problem is Democrats don’t vote,” she said. “The ‘tea baggers’ won in 2010 because 70 percent of the voters stayed home, and the people who stayed home were Democrats. We need people to be responsible for every block, to get everybody to vote. The people representing our party ought to reflect our party. If you don’t like Rick Perry and what he’s done to this state, get out and vote. The problem we have is getting people who claim they care to get out and vote. Philosophically, we could win any election if we turned out. Unless we commit as Democrats, we’re going to lose.”
Delco turns 83 in July. Although she learned to swim only a few years ago, she laps the YMCA’s East Communities Pool an hour every day (hence the swimsuit photo of her on the cover of Austin Woman in 2009) for both fitness and fun. The Delcos love cruises and have traveled the world by boat and plane. A map on the dining room wall shows red lines crisscrossing the globe from their various journeys. Wilhelmina Delco is basically healthy, happy and satisfied with her life, except for one thing:
“I want a picture with Obama!” she said. “I’ve told everybody I can think of to help me make that happen. You tell Andy Brown that I want a picture with Obama! My husband has one, and I don’t. I want one!”