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April 11, 2018

Former Dallas City Secretary Deborah Watkins, who ‘epitomized professionalism,’ dies

The Dallas Morning News

Former Dallas City Secretary Deborah Watkins, who was known for her professionalism and fairness, died early Tuesday after a year-and-a-half-long fight with uterine cancer. She was 66.

Watkins worked for the city for 37 years. The City Council hired her as its top record-keeper and election-runner in 2006. Her son Kurt Watkins, 36, said city secretary was the top City Hall job his mother wanted early in her career — likely because "it was an attainable job for a black female in the 1970s."

"That was what she wanted to get and she got there, and she served admirably," Kurt Watkins said.

Deborah Watkins retired in the summer of 2011. Afterward, she worked as the interim city secretary in Ferris, served as vice chair of the city’s Ethics Advisory Commission and earned her Ph.D. in education from Texas A&M-Commerce. Kurt Watkins said his mother had hoped to start a second career as a Dallas County Community College professor.

Former and current city officials remembered Watkins fondly. Former Mayor Laura Miller said the former city secretary was "a one-in-a-million person" who people didn’t want to cross simply because she was too nice.

"Deborah was the most gentle, patient, calming city employee, which is pretty hard to pull off at Dallas City Hall," Miller said. "She was loved by everyone and did her job beautifully."

Former Mayor Tom Leppert said Watkins "was terrific" and "epitomized professionalism."

"You always enjoyed being around her," she said. "She always had a very good disposition. Never got down. Even in difficult times, she always had a smile on her face."

Mayor Mike Rawlings called for a moment of silence Wednesday for Watkins, who he said was "a real dedicated public servant of this city." Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway said in an interview that Watkins "had the ability to get along with any and everyone, even if she disagreed."

"She was firm. She was factual. She left a heck of a mark in the city secretary’s office," Caraway said.

Watkins was born Deborah Phillips and grew up in Dallas. She graduated in 1969 from Roosevelt High School, which she attended with Caraway. She then attended the University of North Texas, where she met her future husband Thomas on her first day there.

The couple had two children, Ryan and Kurt. Thomas Watkins, who died in 2008, was a long-serving president of the Dallas chapter of the NAACP. Deborah Watkins, who also earned a master’s degree from UNT, was the president of the Dallas chapter of Delta Sigma Theta from 1993 to 1995. The couple’s nephew was Craig Watkins, the former Dallas County district attorney.

Deborah Watkins worked in the city secretary’s office early in her career and climbed her way through the ranks at City Hall to become manager of accounting and collections for the court services department. In that position, she hired a young Zale Corporation credit analyst named Bilierae Johnson, who is now the interim city secretary.

When Johnson’s mother died about three months after she started working for the city, Watkins kept her from quitting.

"I was young and wasn’t thinking straight," Johnson said. Watkins, Johnson said, told her she would give her whatever leeway she needed, even if she needed to cry at her desk.

Johnson and Watkins both went on to different departments in City Hall afterward, but remained in touch. Johnson considered Watkins a mentor. And in recent years, Johnson called Watkins to pick her brain and ask questions about issues facing the city secretary’s office.

Watkins was "an amazing lady, very kind and strong," Johnson said. Johnson — whose official appointment to the city secretary position is on Wednesday’s council agenda — said she’s struggling with Watkins’ death because she believed her friend had more to accomplish.

"She was full of life until the end," Johnson said. "She really wanted to keep going. She didn’t stop. Her situation stopped her."

Watkins’ funeral is at 11 a.m. Saturday at Greater Golden Gate Missionary Baptist Church at 9333 Ferguson Rd, Dallas, TX 75228.

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