TAMPA — She may be the president of the largest African-American public service sorority in the nation, but Paulette Walker doesn't decide where the organization's Southern region holds its conference.
So the retired University of South Florida administrator and lifelong educator was ecstatic when Delta Sigma Theta announced that it would gather in Tampa, Walker's adopted hometown.
"We send out bids to cities to see who can meet our needs, and Tampa was able to meet those needs," Walker said. "I was extremely happy."
The group meets every two years.
Representatives of the sorority and Hillsborough County's tourism agency, Visit Tampa Bay, say that about 5,000 Deltas plan to attend the gathering that starts today at the Tampa Convention Center.
Sherri Brown, a national sales manager at Visit Tampa Bay, said she has heard of Deltas who plan to visit from as far away as Maryland and California, far outside the usual reaches of the sorority's Southern region, which is made up of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and the Bahamas. She attributes part of the enthusiasm to Walker, elected Delta president last July.
"She's a great motivator," Brown said. "That's why people like her, because she's so charismatic and always has a great attitude, and she always speaks so highly of Tampa."
Walker, who lives in Valrico, joined Delta Sigma Theta as a sophomore at Michigan State University in 1966. A native of Detroit, she said she was drawn to the Deltas' dedication to community service and civil rights.
"Once I came on campus, I was able to see all the work they were doing on campus and in the greater East Lansing community," Walker said. "I decided that was what I wanted to do and the group I wanted to do it with."
After graduating from Michigan State, she went to the University of Michigan to earn a master's degree in guidance and counseling and a doctorate in education. She worked as a middle and high school teacher, counselor and administrator before moving to USF, where she served as director of undergraduate programs and internship in the College of Education. She dedicated much of her career to improving inner-city schools and coauthored We Can Have Better Urban Schools.
Through it all, she remained an active Delta member, serving in a number of roles before becoming Southern regional director, vice president and eventually president of the group that claims more than 200,000 members.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who has known Walker for nearly 20 years, said he thought it was a "natural" fit when she was named president. "She loves her sorority, she loves her sorors, and she's committed to their values and their causes," he said.
Walker says her new job requires her to work closely with other organizations in addition to leading her own. "My title is really president and CEO … "
The Deltas began as an association of 22 students at Howard University on Jan. 13, 1913. Their first public activity was the Women's Suffrage March in Washington, D.C., two months later. Delta Sigma Theta and the communities it serves have changed drastically since then, and Walker says that one of her more important roles is determining the direction and goals of the organization.
"We're in our 101st year. Now that we've had our big centennial year, what are we going to do to set the mark for our second 100 years?" Walker asked.
Victoria Jacobsen can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2442.