clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Through These Halls: Debra Powell

An accomplished athlete, an educator and politician

Office of University Communications - Craig Chandler

Debra Powell was born in 1964 in East St. Louis, Illinois. East St. Louis is a city that often makes the news for all the wrong reasons. It was named the “most dangerous city” in the U.S. in 2018. The majority of the city’s residents live in poverty and the school system ranks among the worst in Illinois (source).

For many, earning a college scholarship would be an opportunity to get out and never look back.

For others, like Debra Powell, a college education is just the first step in finding ways to solve incredibly difficult problems.

Powell was a two-sport athlete in high school, winning a state championship in the 100 meter hurdles (and two team championships) at East St. Louis Lincoln high school. She was also part of a basketball team that went undefeated and won a state championship. One of her teammates in both sports was none other than Olympic heptathlon gold-medal winner Jackie Joyner.

The University of Nebraska recruited the 5’9” forward who became an All-American in track as part of several relay teams. She also ranks #9 all-time in the Nebraska women’s basketball scoring list with 1,843 point and #9 on the all-time rebounding list with 750 boards. She was named All Big Eight (first team in 83-84 and second team in 84-85). (

She earned a bachelor’s degree in communications.

While in high school, East St. Louis mayor Carl Officer promised her a job if she earned a college degree. She returned in 1985 and became a public relations assistant.

She married, divorced and became a news anchor and news director for a local cable station. She was elected to the city council in 1993, a position she held until 1998. It was then that she decided to run for mayor, and was elected as the city’s first female mayor in 1999. She served until 2003. Powell is credited with bringing some major businesses to the city and for tackling corruption in city government. Her name was removed from the ballot in her re-election campaign of 2003 because of a paperwork snafu.

During this time, she married William Childress. She has two children, Anthony Tarvin Jr. and Karmeen Powell-Childress.

After her time in politics, Powell went to work in the education system. She earned a doctorate in education and has served in administrative roles in both the St. Louis and Kansas City public school systems.


Illinois Glory Days