By Maria Saporta
Updated with Wonya Lucas’ love letter to Bill Taggart.
Stunned by the sudden loss of interim President Bill Taggart, leaders of Morehouse College pledged to do everything they can to keep the institution strong.
A service for Taggart, who died suddenly on June 7 of an apparent brain aneurism, was held on Friday at the Martin Luther King Jr. Chapel on the Morehouse campus.
“Things happen for a reason,” said Willie Woods, who was elected chairman of the Morehouse Board of Trustee at the same tumultuous time Taggart was named interim president. “The sad part is that we are going to miss Bill’s leadership.”
Stopping short of saying Taggart would have been a candidate for the permanent post, Woods said he wanted “to be the best interim president possible.”
Morehouse College has named Michael Hodge to serve as acting president. He is a sociology professor who serves as the associate provost for research, scholarship and creative production.
The board will conduct two searches – one to serve as interim president and the ongoing search for a permanent leader of Morehouse.
“We are looking at a lot of great candidates,” Woods said. “We hope to complete the search by the end of the year.”
Attending the service was former President John Wilson, who was pushed out from his post in April after serving as the institution’s leader since January 2013.
“Bill and I became friends when we worked together for Barack Obama,” Wilson said. “I loved him. I hired him. And I will always honor his memory.”
The college has been described as a campus divided for years as a result of power struggles on the board of trustees and the administration.
Woods said Taggart’s sudden death has been an awakening for the college and a time to pivot.
“Situations like this always bring healing,” Woods said. “We have got to get over our petty differences and rise above them. We have got to think about to think about the future because we might not be here tomorrow.”
Acting President Hodge said the pathway forward is for Morehouse to do what it always has done – to prepare young African-American men for their lives ahead.
“Bill left a real impression in a short period of time on the college culture,” Hodge said. “Morehouse is strong.”
Before the service, Harold Martin, secretary of the Morehouse board of trustees, described the college as a family.
“This is going to be a tough day,” Martin said. “We named Bill Taggart as interim president 67 days ago. We got that exactly right.”
Later Martin said: “Bill was excited about being interim president. It is amazing he achieved that goal before his passing. Bill was our leader. Morehouse is family. Morehouse is a tight-knit community. Whenever you lose a leader, it’s painful. It rocks you to your core.”
Ron Thomas, director of the Morehouse journalism program, said that even though Taggart didn’t go to Morehouse, he had been mentored by Morehouse Men.
“We didn’t really get to see the fruit of his labor,” said Thomas, who added that the Morehouse development staff tripled since Taggart had become chief operating officer two years ago.”
Thomas said Taggart and he had talked about “having an egalitarian approach towards faculty and staff,” and creating a unified, egalitarian college campus.
Given the recent leadership hurdles, Martin said the goal would be to name a new interim and a new president “as soon as possible.” A new interim could be named within “a matter of weeks,” and a new president by the end of the year.
Trustee Dale Jones, a Morehouse Man who runs a search firm – Diversified Search, is chairing the search committee. The Boston-based search firm of Isaacson Miller has been retained to help Morehouse find its next president.
The greater Atlanta community and Morehouse family came out in force to Taggart’s service with estimates of nearly 1,000 attendees. Laughter and tears fill the chapel as friends, family and associates spoke of Taggart and Morehouse.
Former board chair, Robert Davidson, remembered that when he asked Taggart to serve as interim president, he received a quick yes.
“Morehouse had embarked on the next phase of its journey,” Davidson said. “Bill brought us together. Bill always made a point that he was not a Morehouse Man, but truly he was.”
Taggart, an Atlanta native, ended up attending Howard University and later the Harvard Business School.
When Taggart was asked whether he was a Morehouse Man, Rev. Lawrence Edward Carter Sr., dean of the MLK Chapel, said Taggart answered: “Dr. Mays and I did not go to Morehouse.”
Dr. Benjamin E. Mays served as president of Morehouse for 27 years during the Civil Rights era, and he mentored Martin Luther King Jr. and former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.
Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who also went to Howard University, poked fun at the rivalry between the two historically black colleges.
“You can always tell a Morehouse Man, but you can’t tell him much,” said Young, who described Taggart’s death as a comma rather than a period – comparing him to King.
“Martin Luther King has not gone anywhere. He was far more powerful in death than he was in life,” Young said. “Martin used to laugh and joke about death… He often said, ‘We’ll be lucky to 40 (King was assassinated when he was 39). The moment of his death was not even painful. It was sudden and quick, as it was with Bill. He danced through life. He sang through life.”
Young said Taggart died on the eve of a retreat of Morehouse leaders, when he was going to present a detailed transition plan for Morehouse – “which you and the faculty ought to carry on.”
Former Morehouse President Robert Franklin then spoke of the dinner he shared with Taggart on the very night of his death. They spent three-and-a-half hours at the Oceanaire seafood restaurant where Taggart ordered the seabass and asparagus, but then he decided that was too healthy so he also ordered a lobster macaroni and cheese.
During the dinner, Taggart spoke of the love for his 13-year-old daughter Elizabeth, his fiancé Wonya Lucas and his ideas for Morehouse that he would share at the next day’s retreat. A few hours later, Taggart died.
The service was filled with touching moments that included the three women in his life: his mother, Marian Taggart, who fainted during one of the musical selections; his daughter, Elizabeth, who was adopted by an extended family of women who work at Morehouse and Clark-Atlanta University; and Wonya Lucas, who read an email that she had sent to Taggart, expressing her love for him.
Here are the comments Wonya Lucas shared at the memorial service. (Warning: it may bring tears to your eyes):
Last night we experienced a heart-warming “celebration of the life of Bill Taggart.” As each person stepped to the microphone, there was much love and respect, and there were consistent themes. Bill was a humble man, with a brilliant mind, a quick wit, and a warm and generous spirit. He could inspire you to achieve things beyond your perceived capabilities. He could change your life with the right words at the right moment.
As eloquent as everyone was last night, I must confess that I have struggled to find the words to share with you today. I mean, how do you capture the robust life of a man such as William Taggart in three minutes? So, I ask your permission for a little more time, Dean Carter.
Very early this morning, I read every note, card, email and letter that we ever exchanged. I even listened to his voicemails. I needed to feel his energy. And, I found a random email that I would like to share with you that is truly a summation of my love, respect, and admiration for William.
I love everything about you. I love your slightly Southern drawl, and your animated hand movements when you want to make a point. I love your distinguished style with your new school kicks. I love the excitement in your eyes when you talk about the history of hip-hop, or history of English Avenue. I even love how you describe, in excruciating detail, how you stumped your toe yesterday.
I also love how you loved Lydia. She helped you grow and transform as a man, a husband, and a father. I feel honored that you share those moments with me, and she will always live in you and therefore, in me. But, please don’t forget the lessons learned. Carry them with you every step of the way.
I love that you are an active and engaged father, and it is all about Elizabeth! I watch how you coach and advocate for her. I love how you talk to her as an adult and not a child. She is smart, poised, engaging, and “don’t take no mess” just like her Mama and Daddy (and Granny)! I love how you love her.
I love how you love your carefully curated menagerie of friends, and how much they admire and love you. It is well deserved. I love how much you love your Mom, and you tell everyone that “My momma comes first.” I love how, as the patriarch of your family, you take pride in, not only just in loving them, but being able to care for, advise and nurture each of them.
I love our many adventures together whether near or far. If we’re dancing during old school concerts or cheering the Braves and Falcons on, we are guaranteed to have fun, sometimes we exist in our own little world amongst hundreds or even thousands of people. I love that you are willing just to pick up and fly to Australia with me so that I can become a Platinum Medallion member. William have already created a lifetime of memories from our experiences at home and exploring six continents together, and I look forward to a life of even more adventures.
Finally, I love that you love me. You are the smartest, kindest and cutest guy I have ever known. I love your keen intellect and our healthy debates. I even love that we frustrate each other as neither of us can ever truly be “controlled” and we are both a little controlling. I love your truth and your honesty. But, I love you most in the quiet moments that we share. A simple touch of the hand can make my heart flutter. A smile or glance my way bonds me to you forever. We are free spirits dancing along this journey together, but respectful of the place we each hold in each other’s hearts. You are my man, and what more can one want in life, but to have a man like you loving me.
So, we will all miss the very presence of Bill Taggart. We will ask ourselves questions like, “Why him?” “Why now”?.
As Elizabeth so eloquently said last night, “he would not want us to be sad. He would want us to carry on.” And we know that he would want his friends and family to maintain closeness and to keep enjoying life.
He would want to see a vibrant Atlanta community, particularly here on the Westside. Now, I must say that he would want a Super Bowl. He just would.
But more importantly, he would want us all to honor his memory by building a stronger and sustainable Morehouse College. So that this institution can continue to produce the caliber of men that will transform the world for the next 150 years. So, let us keep his memory alive by finishing his work not yet done. Thank you.