Emma Tibbs, who died on New Year’s Day, was the most influential person you never heard of.
Mayor Jim Gray dubbed her TOOL, short for The Oracle Of Lexington. Political candidates sought her counsel; she was generous with her time, choosy with her endorsements.
I was lucky to have had many conversations with Emma, over many years, about many topics, personal and political.
I feel confident then in saying that her moral compass was unerring.
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I know, that’s a big claim. But never have I known anyone whose sense of justice was honed so finely, who saw through duplicity so witheringly, and whose sympathies went so surely to the underdog.
Plus, she was brilliant. Walt Gaffield, who succeeded her as president of the Fayette County Neighborhood Council, says that before cell phones, she didn’t need a phone book. “She simply remembered everyone’s number.”
Lexington also was lucky — that she poured her enormous energy into her adopted hometown and into organizing neighborhoods.
During the years when neglected and poorly designed infrastructure spewed raw sewage into homes, streets and streams, it might as well have been Emma’s family room that was filling up with the nasty stuff. She took it personally.
She spearheaded a Neighborhood Council study that detailed five years of sewer overflows. That study became the Environmental Protection Agency’s template for the $300 million court-ordered plan to clean up Lexington’s streams, says Scott White, the attorney hired by the Neighborhood Council to intervene in the court case.
“Emma was the sole reason the clean-water case settled on terms that actually fixed the problem,” says White. She butted heads with two mayors to make sure they didn’t cut a bad deal in secret. “Every Lexingtonian and city official can thank Emma Tibbs, for without the sewer deal we would not be experiencing the infill growth today, our core neighborhoods would still be flooding, and risks of drowning from stormwater would still be present,” says White.
Clean water is just one of her legacies. Suffice it to say, Emma worked for too many good causes to list them all.
By bringing disparate neighborhood associations into an umbrella organization, she gave neighborhoods and new voices a say in city hall debates, and the public interest a better chance against special interests.
So trusted and reliable was she that she was enlisted several times to oversee the decennial redrawing of council districts.
Emma’s story is a Kentucky classic. She was born Emmabel Manning 78 years ago in Clay County. Poet Maurice Manning is her nephew. Determined that Emma get a good education, her mother sent her away to school at Cardome Academy, a boarding school for girls in Georgetown run by the Sisters of Visitation.
Her mother worked as secretary to the Clay County school superintendent well past conventional retirement age, then moved to an apartment in Chevy Chase, where Emma dutifully cared for her. Emma, who never lost her Clay County twang, often told me how deeply she admired her mother.
After graduating from Nazareth College in Nelson County, Emma became a music and history teacher at Cardome and Lexington Catholic High School. Her husband, Sonny Tibbs, worked in sales at IBM. Avid bird feeders and watchers, they were devoted to each other and to their rescue cat Queenie.
Emma left teaching to become a Realtor, though, as many, including Herald-Leader journalists, would say, she never stopped teaching.
A devoted Catholic, Emma was a Christian (in the follower of the teachings of Jesus Christ sense of the word). She had no patience for hypocrites or moneychangers in the temple, and a big heart brimming with compassion.
Jamie Lucke is a Herald-Leader editorial writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.