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Ida Goodwin Woolfolk: Educator, civic leader led by example

Ida Goodwin Woolfolk
Wiley Price | St. Louis American
Ida Goodwin Woolfolk died Wednesday, at age 74.

Ida Goodwin Woolfolk – regarded by many as a treasure, one of the region’s most resplendent gems – died at home Wednesday.  Her death was announced by her daughter, Sarah Woolfolk Edwards, on Facebook. She was 72 years old.

The cause of death was not immediately known, but recently she had experienced congestive heart issues, said her friend, Michael P. McMillan, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis.

McMillan said also he had rushed to a hospital emergency room to see Ms. Woolfolk on many previous occasions. "She had beaten that kind of stuff so many times," he said.

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, had known Ms. Woolfolk since childhood. “St. Louis is mourningthe loss of a great lady who did so much good and served so well for decades.

“Miss Ida was not only a trusted friend and great supporter; she was truly a mentor to me and so many others," Clay said. "We will never forget this incredible lady, educator and true civic treasure.”

Ms. Woolfolk was one of three daughters born to B.W. and Myrtle Goodwin. She followed the best lessons of black history and progressive leadership in St. Louis from the very beginning. She was a product of the Ville neighborhood and was baptized in Kennely Temple Church of God in Christ in St. Louis. 

Her friend Sherman George, former St. Louis fire chief, said Ms. Woolfolk  was "an ambassador for her church ... and for the city as well."

Ida Goodwin Woolfolk speaks at an event honoring the late Martin Luther King Jr.
Credit Wiley Price | St. Louis American
Ida Goodwin Woolfolk speaks at an event honoring the late Martin Luther King Jr.

In a fragmented and segregated region, George said she had the rare ability to connect people with each other and with a common purpose.

"She would listen to people and then connect people to accomplish something positive," he said. 

After graduating from Sumner High School in 1961, she went to Stowe Teachers College, now Harris-Stowe State University, where she became a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

Ms. Woolfolk carried the influences of those institutions with her as she made her way to the top of the city’s civic ladder.

In 1993, she was inducted into Sumner High School’s Hall of Fame, joining an impressive roster of some of St. Louis' most famous sons and daughters. 

In 2004, she ended a career of more than four decades with the St. Louis Public Schools as a special assistant to the superintendent and director of community engagement and partnerships. She continued to serve the district as a consultant for several years after her retirement. Ms. Woolfolk also taught as an adjunct instructor at Harris-Stowe, Washington University and Webster University.

She spent continued to volunteer for a host of community organizations, corporations, initiatives and nonprofits — including The St. Louis American Foundation.

Dr. Donald Suggs, president and publisher of the American, gave an emotional reminiscence.

“Ida Woolfolk was the quintessential St. Louisan,” he said. “Her friendship and her willingness to help me to understand a city I was not native to were extraordinarily valuable to me.

“She was a true icon in this community,” Suggs said. “She was a woman with great spirit, an incredible memory — and an incredible sense of humor. No person was more beloved by the community than Ida, and many, many people will miss her.

“I can’t imagine St. Louis without her irrepressible spirit and wit. She was a joy.”

St. Louis: where everyone knew her name

The phrase “never met a stranger” applied perfectly.  

“Do I know Miss Ida? She was my counselor at Northwest,” Angela Winbush once said, when someone attempted to familiarize the singer-songwriter with Ms. Woolfolk. 

Everyone knew her — and she knew them too.

Instead of introductions, Ms. Woolfolk would often take the liberty of gloriously announcing attributes she most admired or recent accomplishments of people she encountered when introducing them to others.

Most of the time, people would be taken aback: They wouldn’t have assumed she had noticed them, let alone to have taken the time to share their personal lives and accomplishments with her captive audience. She instinctively brought people together to accomplish a mutually beneficial objective.

An investor in people

Finding a cohesive explanation about what Ms. Woolfolk’s life work was and what she had accomplished is not easy. Not even if you ask the people who knew her best.  

If 10 individuals were asked, “What does Miss Ida do,” there would be at least 10 different responses, and each would be accurate in its own way. Because she lived for serving as mistress of ceremonies for community banquets, luncheons and dinners, she was sometimes was referred to as a socialite. Other times it was social worker, administrator, community leader, mentor or educator. Above everything else, she was a master investor who put her money on the region’s most valuable resource — its people.

Ms. Woolfolk’s more than four decades of service to the St. Louis Public Schools began as an educator and counselor; she tapped into the potential of her students and aided them in crafting personalized paths to success. She took her natural gift for connecting people and parlayed it into an indispensable asset for the St. Louis Public Schools.

By the time she retired, she was one of the district’s highest ranking administrators and most trusted officials. She built bridges between the district and the political, corporate and faith communities – both collectively and independently. Those connections yielded positive and durable returns.

Her friend Michael McMillan posted a remembrance early Thursday on Facebook. Here is part of it:

“There are rare but significant moments in life that something happens and you realize you will never be the same again. Today is one of those moments for me and countless others because of the passing of Ida Woolfolk.

“I could have never asked for a better friend, confidant, mentor, supporter and advisor. We truly 'got' each other for almost 25 years," McMillan wrote. “We were with each other through every good and bad thing that ever happened to each other and for that.”

Watching Ms. Woolfolk work a room at a high-powered function was captivating, but to see the ritual that started her workday at the SLPS headquarters was downright fascinating.

It would take her about 20 minutes to get from the front door to behind her desk because she would embark on engaging in conversation with every single person she encountered –  from the security guard when she entered the building to the last person she saw before she settled into her office.

“Gladys, how is your girl?” Ms. Woolfolk would ask the custodian, after she made her way up the stairs. She and Gladys usually crossed paths as Gladys was putting the finishing touches on her day.

They bonded over being mothers to only one child — a girl. Both were known for pouring praises upon their daughters and their exchanges almost always ended up as a friendly battle of bragging on them.  

Her conversations with Gladys were conducted with the same grace and dignity as Ms. Woolfolk’s conversations with the late Cleveland Hammons, a former St. Louis Public Schools’ superintendent. That wasn’t lost on Gladys.

While Ms. Woolfolk and her daughter shared a special bond, that closeness seemed to be true in her relationships with her entire family, especially her sisters Irene E. Graham and Agnes Hughes.

“Look at 'em — I call them the golden girls,” Woolfolk’s nephew, Charles Creath, once said, as the sisters sat laughing among themselves over refreshments during an opening night reception of a Black Rep show, where Creath served as music director.

The nickname came from the popular sitcom featuring a group of inseparable senior citizen women who managed to live agelessly. The nickname perfectly summed them up.

Her sister Agnes Hughes died in December 2014.

“I was going to shy away from the spotlight after I lost my dear sister Agnes,” Woolfolk said during her hosting duties at the 12th Annual Salute to Women Leadership Dinner presented by the Urban League last year.

“But the outpouring of love, support and condolences, let me tell you, it has been just wonderful — and I’m here because I believe that’s what Agnes would’ve wanted.”

And so it was. She let her light shine brightly — 'til the very end.

Survivors include her daughter, Sarah Woolfolk Edwards; her sister, Irene Graham; and two grandsons.  

The celebration of Ms. Woolfolk's life, begins on Saturday, April 2, at the Parc Frontenac, 40 North Kingshighway, at 10 a.m. with a horse-drawn procession, which is to conclude at the apartment building.  The visitation  is to be from noon to 3 p.m. at Kennerly Temple Church of God in Christ, 4307 Kennerly Avenue, St. Louis, Mo. 63113. Memorial services are to be conducted at the church from 3 to 5 p.m.

Ms. Woolfolk's body will lie in state in the rotunda of City Hall from noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 3.

The family requests in place of flowers that contributions be sent to Meds and Food for Kids, 4488 Forest Park Avenue, St. Louis, Mo. 63108, or a charity of one's choice. 

Kenya Vaughn is a reporter for the St. Louis American. 

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