A true political pioneer, Eleanor began her public life as a member of a Citizens for Good Schools reform slate of candidates for the Houston Independent School District Board of Trustees. She served as a trustee for four years, beginning in 1970, and in 1972 she led the Board as president. The CGS years were tumultuous, emotional and difficult for Eleanor and the board, which presided over the firing of the existing superintendent and hiring of a new one, the desegregation of HISD, the creation of magnet schools, the establishment of the Volunteers in Public School and the birth of the Houston Community College System—the latter two projects spearheaded by Eleanor.
Eleanor’s board was defeated after its first four-year term, but that did not deter her from continuing her public service. She was soon appointed to the Board of the Houston Housing Authority, became president of what is now Harris County Children’s Protective Services, and helped found and was president of the statewide organization for such agencies, the Texas Council of Child Welfare Boards. She also served on the Executive Board of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
In 1978, as the Houston City Council prepared to expand its numbers and move to a mixture of district and at-large council positions, Eleanor decided to run for a Council seat in the 1979 elections. Political sages shook their heads. They told her she couldn’t possibly win against 20-year veteran Council Member Frank Mann. Fifteen months before the election, Eleanor quietly, firmly and with her usual determination put together a well-oiled team of devoted volunteers. Thus was born the “Turtle Team”–symbolizing Eleanor’s conviction that you can only get things done when you stick your neck out. A firm believer in tolerance, civil rights and the humanity of all peoples, Eleanor was very inclusive in putting her team together, and when she won the run-off, they presented her with a broom denoting her “clean sweep.”
Throughout her 16 years on Council, Eleanor took the lead on countless pieces of legislation that changed the face of Houston. She fought to regulate signage, pass the Development Ordinance (the first piece of planning legislation in years), establish the 9-1-1 Emergency Network, ban smoking in public places, require bicycle helmets, introduce fluoride to the public water system on the East side, initiate the W.A.T.E.R. Fund to help seniors pay their water bills, improve the EMS, create the Houston Archeological and Historical Commission, organize the Mounted Patrol, establish the READ Commission and promote trade through her Houston International Initiatives program. She was meticulous in her preparation for her legislative battles. Her initiatives represented the best of what was being implemented around the country. She never ran from a fight–and there were many. She never over-reached. She always advised taking “one bite of the elephant at a time.”
Perhaps her most lasting legacy is the 200 plus SPARK parks that dot school grounds in every part of the city. As only Eleanor could, she brought city, county and school district governments and the private sector together in a unique SPARK partnership that continues today.
Eleanor was honored by HISD which named the Eleanor Tinsley Elementary School after her. The City of Houston also recognized her many contributions by naming Eleanor Tinsley Park on Allen Parkway in her honor.
Her multitude of honors also include election to the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame; Distinguished Alumna-Baylor University; James C. Howland Award for Urban Enrichment for SPARK program-National League of Cities; Texas Chapter Award-the Texas Chapter, American Planning Association; one of Twenty-five People Who Changed Houston-Houston Post; Best Public Official-Houston Magazine; named Member of the Texas Society of Architects in recognition of significant achievements that have advanced the causes of the architectural profession; Woman of Valor-Jewish National Fund; Susan B. Anthony Woman of the Year-Harris County Women’s Political Caucus, and Political Pioneer-League of Women Voters of the Houston Area.
Eleanor was not only a larger than life public figure who never lost her Texas charm and graciousness, she was wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, – and a former piano teacher, bridge player, Sunday school teacher, and gourmet cook. Born in Dallas, Texas on October 31, 1926 to W.C. (Tom) and Georgiabel Burleson Whilden, Eleanor was the great granddaughter of Rufus C. Burleson, president of Baylor University for 50 years. Eleanor, who received her Bachelor’s degree from Baylor after attending William and Mary College, was a proud alumna all her life. She was married for 59 years to the late Dr. James A. Tinsley, Professor of History at the University of Houston. She is survived by their three children, Kathleen and her husband, David Ownby, of Houston; Tom Collier Tinsley and his wife Cathy of Washington, D.C., and Marilyn and her husband, B.D. Daniel, of Houston. She is also survived by her seven grandchildren, Dan Ownby and his wife Allison, and Emily Ownby Elliott and her husband, Brooks; Bethany Tinsley Mateosian and her husband, Sam, James Tinsley and Claire Tinsley; and Angela Daniel and Bill Daniel and great granddaughter, Lucy Elliott. She is also survived by her brother, Walter Whilden and wife, Jennie, and sister-in-law Dorothy Whilden and numerous nieces and nephews.