On December 27, 2022, the Head Start community suffered a great loss in the passing of Dr. Willie Epps of Tchula, Mississippi. Prior to his retirement in 2001, he served as the director of the East St. Louis Campus of Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville (SIUE), and a brilliant early childhood education expert. As Congressman and Vice Chair of the House Democratic Caucus Ted Lieu shared in his recent entry into the Congressional Record, Dr. Epps left an indelible mark on the world of early childhood education over the course of his distinguished career.

Former OHS Deputy Director and current NHSA Senior Advisor Ann Linehan remembers him beautifully: “He was a giant–so erudite, accomplished, passionate, and very funny. He was a scholar, teacher, preacher, and the best storyteller I have ever heard. Each of Dr. Epps’s stories, which were wildly entertaining, were embedded with serious life lessons. His spirit was infectious and his curiosity about life was ever present.”

Dr. Epps retired before my arrival to NHSA but, in 2011, I had an amazing exchange with a conservative refinery engineer who informed me that Head Start was the only government program he did not mind getting his tax dollars. He explained how, when he hired high school and college kids from East St. Louis for the Conoco-Phillips summer jobs, the young men who were extraordinary workers had gone to Head Start as kids. I made a mental note to find out more about SIUE Head Start.

Despite poverty, racial segregation, and substantial obstacles during his childhood, Dr. Epps graduated from Mississippi Valley State University and started working as a sixth grade teacher at Perkins Elementary School in Biloxi, MS, which was a school attended mostly by African American children and teachers. Dr. Epps’ commitment and ambition drove him to earn his master’s degree in elementary education from the University of Southern Mississippi while working as an elementary school principal. In the years that followed, he served as assistant superintendent of the Holmes County School System and joined the faculty of Alcorn State University before heading off to Kansas State University to earn his Ph.D.

Dr. Epps’ career then brought him to the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in Washington, D.C., and to both Mississippi Valley State University and the University of South Alabama as a faculty member. After being recruited to the St. Louis region, he was associated with SIUE for more than two decades. Dr. Epps initially was director of the National Science Awareness Demonstration Program and later was named director of the University’s Head Start Program in St. Clair County. On behalf of the University, he applied for and received about $15 million annually from state, federal, and private grants.

As much as he was a storyteller, Dr. Epps was a careful listener, too. He encouraged his Head Start colleagues across the nation to embrace and own the responsibility each of us bears as leaders to always act in the best interests of those we serve. We thank Dr. Epps’ family for sharing him with us all of these years. No doubt, his legacy and spirit will continue to influence those who follow in his footsteps for many years to come.

Dr. Willie Epps is survived by his wife of 55 years, Dr. Barbara Bacon Epps, who retired from SIUE in 2001; a son, Hon. Willie J. Epps, Jr., a federal judge who married Mischa Buford Epps; a daughter, Beatryx Epps Washington, General Counsel of O.C. Tanner who married Vincent D. Washington; three grandchildren, Gabriela Washington, Cambridge Epps, and Solomon Washington; two sisters, Dr. Fannye Epps Love and Dorothy Epps; and a brother, Sam Epps. A memorial service was held on Saturday, February 18, 2023. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be sent to Mississippi Valley State University, 14000 Highway 82 W., Itta Bena, MS 38941, noting “Dr. Willie J. Epps Scholarship” in the memo line.

Yasmina Vinci

Yasmina Vinci is the executive director of the National Head Start Association.

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