Over the years, I’ve come to understand why Dr. Myrtle Hightower is so important to communities. It’s partly blended with her unique ability to make anyone who approaches her feel as though they are the only person in the room. Through her soft touch along with her welcoming gaze, an immediate feeling of “everything is going to be alright” overcomes you. It’s a moment in time, when all of your inhibitions are temporarily halted and the only feeling you have is I want “more” of what she “has” and please don’t stop the conversation. She has a gentle, powerful, and indelible calming effect.
It’s what many witnessed the night of February 10 within the halls of Plano’s chambers. An opportunity to see a “legend” receive an important acknowledgement extended because of her ability to transcend our imagination and communities. She is and has been our city’s symbol of “hope, unity, and generosity,” greatly because of her emphasis on the importance of treating other people with respect and kindness despite differences. Upon reflection the morning after receiving the Key to the City, Dr. Hightower said, “Plano, Texas has earned its reputation of excellence, integrity and love. I have a feeling of a shock, because I have been shedding tears as I went over everything in my life. I also cried because of the way people have always responded to me.”
At the time of this writing, she is still receiving sentiments of love and appreciation from those she’s touched in our community.
Jokingly, she loves to reminisce on the time she told our Mayor Harry LaRosiliere that he was going to fulfill his current role and she wouldn’t take no for an answer. And it was even more delightful, to hear him say publicly, what most of us have learned, “You can’t say no to Dr. Hightower.”
The tribute was extended by the Mayor because he wanted to express how instrumental she has been in formulating and encouraging his years in public service and her commitment to our city. She successfully guided him along with other influencers to his place as the first African American Mayor of Plano. For me, it was another example and teaching moment to pause one more time and reflect on her investment in changing the trajectory and redefining the perception of our city.
Something magical occurred the afternoon before the designation of Dr. Myrtle Hightower Day in a packed church of more than 300 people, comprised of civic and professional leaders, located in the symbolic Douglass Community. Ten years after starting this tradition at Hill Chapel C.M.E. Church, where she has attended for more than 40 years, Dr. Hightower curated her last musical celebration to acknowledge the extraordinary achievements and sacrifices of African Americans during Black History Month. Pastor Clarence Ford led the “I Have a Dream Program” and a Symphony of Negro Spirituals was performed by renowned baritone, gospel choir and Professor Emeritus Dr. Oral Moses. This program was her “Swan Song” of sorts, as she jokingly told me.
“However, I might be convinced to do it again,” she says.
Prior to the event, Dr. Hightower shared her vision with me on the importance of telling our stories through song. My mother and cousin attended the service and reminisced on how they had not heard many of those songs since life as little girls. Another confirmation, that “Cousin Myrtle,” as I affectionately call her, still had the gift of connecting our past history with the present.
After years of absorbing the affection she holds for her son, Cowboys legend Drew Pearson, I had the opportunity to visit with him at both events. Like many admirers and supporters celebrating the occasions, he was beaming with pride. I asked him about the effect she’s had on his life:
“Her inspiration she used to set for me was through education. I was going to the University of Tulsa and she was proud of that. I found out how much she was involved in education – she is kind of like a mentor to me. You know in football Tom Landry was my mentor – he’s my coach. And in education and the real world, a person like ‘Aunt Myrt’ was my mentor. And not only to me but my kids and my grandkids now. It is amazing to have the lineage continue to grow as she inspires so many people. She is the best and anything she needs, the original 88 is always here for her. Hut, Hut.”
Dr. Hightower is a source of hope and light for me, as I navigate through changing dynamics in communities. Our connection, defined before I was born, cements my belief that nothing in life is a coincidence. It represents an agape love. How I came to be entwined with the gift of her presence is another layered story. As I visualize it, only by the grace and mercy of God is it even possible. After connecting years later into my adulthood, I’ve often cried with joy and thankfulness because I understand our union along with her daughter, my mother and deceased mentor was meant to be. Through her presence, she reminds me of so many years of happiness I spent with my beautiful and compassionate grandmother. While I no longer have the benefit of her physical presence, her memory is etched in my heart. Dr. Hightower comforts me because she understands family lineage and the significant contributions made in earlier years in Muskogee, Oklahoma. It’s a reflection and confirmation of many stories and facts I was taught growing up.
Over time, I realized our greatest journey together would involve the power of diversity and compassion for all. It’s our shared platform to dig deep into our consciousness and hearts about the “why” and discuss solutions about “how” to implement global change. Dr. Hightower exemplifies “why” investing in equality, education, and economic security has always been the right thing to do and remains a prevalent realization that there’s still more work to be done.
I’ve been gifted with the luxury to sit, listen, and learn over the years, which afforded me immeasurable understanding of how Dr. Hightower was molded in her youth and why that space in time is what she cherishes the most. It shaped her to understand that leadership means exuding a voice of reason and thoughtful action. Oppressive situations have been times of “learning” for others; however, she has always practiced “compassion” as a tool to overcome any situation. It’s a simple yet powerful example of what she was taught by her father in early years on the family farm. As I’ve learned through her leadership, adversity is uncontrollable, but how you react to it is based on personal character.
In conversations, she would stop me if I used the word “can’t” and lovingly say, “My sweet cousin, the only reference you may use, is ‘when.’” She assures me that I can achieve anything I aspire for and what many in my lineage sacrificed to receive success would expect from me. I hail from a family of determination that overcame incredible oppression back when it was unsafe to be “black” in Oklahoma. The success earned through hard work afforded many to ascend, all while enduring instances of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots.
Positivity is the creed by which she lives every day of her existence. Dr. Hightower has experienced many forms of racial inequality, formulated in her childhood of walking miles to school, only to wave at the all- white bus that would pass her along the way to the same location. Or times she was escorted to “safe” places because she was determined to carry out the belief that black and white students could reside in the same space and learn. She’s traveled the world with her beloved “Bessie” in tow, and taken students to countries they could only imagine. To this day, she champions those who are underserved or endured hardship because she believes everyone should experience the right to be recognized and heard.
During the Black History Program and the celebrated recognition in Plano’s city hall, there was a particular group of women wearing green accessories and jackets in attendance. It’s a cherished organization that she and her daughter share, where we’ve committed to be “Linked in Friendship and Connected in Service.” Better known as the Plano North Metroplex (TX) Chapter of The Links, Dr. Hightower made a point to recognize the members several times during her acceptance speech. The next morning, I couldn’t help myself and called her to ask why she emphasized their attendance. “It was very important to recognize the organization,” she said, “because the ladies were a physical, large part of my existence, because I got a chance to focus on one of the main program aspects, Services to Youth and Save Our Students (SOS) to educate students of Texas.
“We were new in the City of Plano and had an opportunity to showcase our students of color for the first time. We have come through a lot of things to come up. The Black History Program was an example of what I committed to doing back with the establishment of the organizations present in Plano. It was a chance to showcase a part of my being with youth.”
Dr. Hightower, also known as “Mother,” “Mom,” “Aunt Myrt,” and “Cousin Myrtle” by many who love her, champions the rights of “all” and doesn’t care about the color of your skin; she’s only concerned about the love in your heart “to do good and well” for those in need. She is brilliant, rare, and communities absolutely need more like her to carry out and complete the important work of civility in humanity.