Mary Ruth Duncan: A Champion for Equity

I first met Mary Ruth Duncan in 1986.  I remember vividly my first meeting with her and Linda Ethridge early in my tenure in Waco ISD.  These two leaders knew things about Waco ISD that I would never have learned had they not shared their wisdom with me.  And they did.  Both were strongly committed to having the best possible schools in Waco–for ALL the kids, and both, I knew, would never forsake that commitment. I was just delighted, but not surprised, when Ms. Duncan began to come to our earliest meetings of Texas Kids Can’t Wait.  She was outraged that the school funding system is so broken, so inequitable, so inadequate, so obviously unconstitutional.  She volunteered for tasks.  She signed up for a committee.  She made phone calls.  And she cheered us forward.  She also sent us frequent emails, giving us feedback and suggestions–and encouragement, always encouragement.  I, we, all of us will miss her so.  Bonnie Lesley

EDITORIAL: Mary Ruth Duncan set the bar high for civic leadership

Wednesday November 7, 2012, Waco Tribune-Herald
There’s sad irony in the death of longtime Waco civic leader Mary Ruth Duncan, coming as voters across this land picked winners and losers in local, state and national elections. In so many ways, Duncan, 82, demonstrated how public service should be pursued — not only through her strong tenure on the Waco school board but philanthropic contributions and hard work devoted to causes ranging from public education to women’s health care to animal welfare.

Her principles were simple — one should do more than talk about helping the next generation; one should speak his or her mind without mincing words; and, if fortune has visited one, he or she should use it to aid those who need a helping hand. The example set by her and her husband, Malcolm Duncan Sr., former mayor and longtime car dealer, can be seen not only in their many civic passions but their son’s work as Waco’s very industrious mayor.

Getting involved

One of the best stories about Mary Ruth Duncan is that, during her husband’s own service on the local school board in the 1970s, she peppered him with ideas and thoughts on how to improve public schools. “If you’re so interested in this,” he finally told her, “why don’t you run for the board of trustees?” Which she did in 1980, making stronger competition with private schools a top goal.

Typical of Mary Ruth and Malcolm Duncan Sr.’s work — creation of the MAC Grant program, which helps hundreds of McLennan County high school graduates afford at least two years of community college. The program was tailored to students from economically disadvantaged families who nonetheless have proved their academic merit and shown a potential to further themselves.

In recent years, they also raised funds for the Family Practice Center’s South Waco clinic and built the new library at South 18th Street and Gurley Lane. And Mary Ruth’s support of Planned Parenthood should remind others its chief goal has long been about providing medical care for poor women.

Right to the end

In her final months, Mary Ruth, who helped steer the Humane Society of Central Texas in early days, returned to help forge consensus on the animal shelter and the society’s role there. And she recently showed up at a local Kids Can’t Wait meeting to learn why school finance has gone awry and what the former educator could do about it. All this reflects another Duncan creed — don’t ride off and leave causes to fate and folly when board duty is done. Devotion to local causes should endure.

One who signed an on-line funeral guestbook after Duncan’s death Saturday smartly described her assets as well as anybody could: “Strength, compassion, determination and, of course, an opinion. One of the most fabulous people I have ever had the opportunity to share ideas with in both tough times and good times.” (A memorial service is set for 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Memorials may be made to the local Humane Society and Central Texas Planned Parenthood.)

Taking stock of some of those seeking public office who pander shamelessly and preach derision, it’s hard not to get discouraged. But when one surveys Waco’s leadership — especially those on our nonprofit boards and in unpaid spots in government — one realizes how Mary Ruth Duncan and her family neatly fit the noble, all-American tradition of giving back to the community. Many of us should be happy to build upon their considerable record of public service, if only to honor the good works they have done.

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