Wednesday, August 22, 2012

R.I.P. Dr. Harris

UC Professor Emeritus Evelyn Harris died today—she was one of the most important figures in my life. Aside from my parents, she deserves most of the credit for where I am today. Although I knew this day would be coming (she was 90), it still hurts to know she is gone.

I came to UC as a raw freshman, uncertain as to what college would be like. During my first week on campus, I took a seat in her classroom (Room 306 Riggleman Hall) for the “State and Local Government” class. I still remember one of her assignments for that class during the election year of 1976. She required students to subscribe to a major out-of-state newspaper, and write a report on the election in that state. This was a very creative assignment! I chose the Charlotte Observer from her list of newspapers (in part because I knew I could get good coverage of auto racing in their sports section). It was fun to always be getting a daily newspaper in my little mailbox at the lobby of the dorm. I learned a lot about North Carolina that semester from the newspaper assignment, but I learned even more about West Virginia government from her lectures.

I quickly realized this woman was a phenomenal teacher. She was so passionate about political science (which I had chosen as my major), and her zeal for the topics we covered helped to make her lectures interesting. I realized that I was learning from a true intellectual. She had come to UC in the 1940s from New York with her husband, a scientist who had worked on the Manhattan Project and who had taken a job with a chemical plant near Charleston after WWII. Many of her former students went on to positions of responsibility in the government, including one of her all-time favorite students: Robert C. Byrd.

For me, she became my Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, all rolled into one. I had her for class for probably every semester over the next four years. That includes one semester when she taught “History of Russia” (one of the most eye-opening classes I ever had) as a TV course at 6:00 AM on Saturday mornings on WCHS-TV8 (I used to stumble out to the dorm lobby, put a cassette recorder next to the television, and tried to stay awake on the couch after a typical Friday night of college “activities”).

She was instrumental in convincing me to spend a semester as an intern in Washington, DC. It was a huge step for this country boy to move to the big city, and go to work every day on Capitol Hill as an intern for Congressman Nick Rahall. I’m so glad I took her advice! That experience is still paying dividends today. I often visit DC in my current job, and enjoy remembering the city as I knew it in 1979.

I tried to stay in touch with her over the years, and was delighted to be a guest speaker in her classes a few times. Whenever I pass through Charleston and have the time, I often stop by the UC campus to reminisce, and her classroom was always a place I had to visit. Even when it is empty, I can still sit in those seats and imagine her presence. She was quite inspiring to me! During my career, I have often had leadership training classes where they ask you to envision a mentor you have had in life—Evelyn Harris is who I always think of.

Because she spent her entire career at UC, she was often a “touchstone” whose name could spark conversations with alumni from different eras. My uncle, who spent a year at UC in the late ‘40s after coming home from WWII, had taken one of her classes and remembered her fondly. However, not everyone liked her in the same manner I did. She had a reputation as a tough but fair professor, and if you weren’t a serious student, then you didn’t want to take her class. There were no easy “A”s in her class.

In fact, here is a story related to her tough grading philosophy from the late ‘70s. A small bulletin board near her classroom doorway was used by the Political Science Club which she sponsored. Across the top of the bulletin board were cardboard letters about four inches high which spelled out the title. However, the letter “A” had come up missing, so that it read “POLITIC L SCIENCE CLUB.” As some of us were talking with her after class (probably about an upcoming Political Science Club function), she suggested someone ought to replace that missing letter. A fellow student jokingly replied to her that it hadn’t been fixed because “…no one could make an A in political science!” [I think the rest of us laughed at the joke more than she did, but she still cracked a smile.]

When I started teaching American Government and Constitutional Law classes about ten years ago, I knew that I would be emulating the best political science professor I had ever had. She was my role model for how my classes were to be structured. I wanted to push students to learn but also be fair. I also wanted to make them think, to encourage classroom debate, and to always be excited about the topic, just as she had been. There was no way that I could ever pay her back for what a good teacher she had been to me—all I could do was to “pay it forward” by inspiring a new generation of students. I don’t think I could ever come close to reaching the high bar she set, but at least I tried to give my students a taste of what it was like to be in her classroom.

I sometimes called her to keep in touch and let her know what I was doing. During one of these infrequent calls, she gave me a good idea to use in my classes. I had told her that I made a practice of giving my American Government students a test based on sample questions from the U.S. Citizenship test (to make them realize how little they knew about their government and how lucky they were to be born American). She loved that concept, and then suggested that I should also give them a test based on questions that blacks in the south were often asked when registering to vote. I was able to find a listing of such questions on the Internet, and this became a regular feature in my Constitutional Law class.

About 15 years ago, I became aware of a book called “Tuesdays with Morrie” about a former student visiting with his former professor before his death. I went to the library and got this book on tape prior to a trip when I was driving across the state of Ohio. It turned out to be a very emotional book; to the point that I am not ashamed to admit crying to myself as I drove alone through the flat cornfields on the western side of Ohio. I didn’t know Morrie, but I knew an intellectual professor who had touched my life in the same way. I treasured my interactions with her. Now she is gone too, and she will be missed by many of us.

That's me sitting in her classroom during my most recent visit to campus.


  1. Can you believe that I was at UC for 3 1/2 years (transfer), and I never had her as a professor? Doesn't seem possible.

  2. Even if you didn't take one of her classes, I'm sure you had some interactions with her on the small UC campus, and knew what a classy lady she was. If you ever get a time machine and go back to your college days, I would urge you to alter your schedule and fit in one of her courses. She was incredible!