Our mother, Dorothy Watson Harper, passed away at age 99 in December. She was one of the greats. You can see a video of the celebration of her life which includes the eulogy, a slide show, and some of her writings here:
Because several people said they wanted to see a copy of the eulogy, here is what I intended to say. Any discrepancies from what I actually said are due to poor memory. Any discrepancies from her actual life are due to the inadequacy of our language to approximate who she was.
Dorothy Harper eulogy
12-18-21 St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Helena
I’m Rusty Harper. My siblings gave me the honor of speaking today by saying, “If you didn’t want to give the eulogy, you should not have been born first.”
Our mother was born 99 years ago in Birmingham, Alabama, in a good Methodist family. They taught her to love God and love family. She learned that lesson well.
Her mother also taught her to be frugal. She learned that lesson well, too. Good thing, because when she was eight, the Great Depression hit.
“Frugal” meant she learned how to make her own clothes, which she did for herself and later for her family. She made her own hats.
Dorothy had a sense of style. Our Sister Nancy says Mom could look like a million bucks in an outfit that cost a buck ninety-eight for her to make.
“Frugal” for many years meant she made her own soap. It was good, sturdy soap bars that we figured would last two or three years if they didn’t accidentally get thrown in the garbage. “Frugal” meant that 70 years after the Depression was over, she was still saving plastic bags and anything else that could be reused. “Frugal” meant in the 1950s we drove twice from Great Falls to visit grandparents in Alabama and Florida with our family of seven in a Volkswagen Beetle!
We can match “frugal” with anybody.
Her mama also taught her how to cook healthy meals. She became a health food fanatic. She made yogurt before yogurt was a health food.
You can cook healthy and still be frugal. When you boil water for peas or any vegetable, the water now has nutrients in it. You can use that to make the Kool aid or just stretch the juice.
One of the great influences on Dorothy’s life was a very young childhood friend. Up until the Depression, the family would drive every year to Iuka, Mississippi, to visit relatives. The relatives had a maid, a black woman, who had a daughter just Dorothy’s age. They were great friends.
WillEllen was smart. She could teach Dorothy the names of all the plants along the stream beds and in the fields and which ones were edible or had other uses.
When the Depression hit, the family didn’t go back to Iuka again until Dorothy was a freshman in high school. This time Dorothy was shocked to hear her friend, WillEllen, read from her only schoolbook: “Run, run, run as fast as you can. You can’t catch me. I’m the gingerbread man.” In Dorothy’s English class, she was reading Shakespeare, and in her Latin class, Cicero.
WillEllen had to work in the cotton fields from the time she was a very small child. She could only go to school a few months out of the year at a school that had very few resources. Dorothy was overwhelmed and so angered by this unfairness.
Dorothy went to college at the University of Montevallo, just south of Birmingham. It was a women’s college. She loved modern dance, theater, and speech. A few years later our father would be known as one of the great speakers in this nation, but only our mother ever won a national speech competition. When she won, she came back to her campus for a huge party.
The next year, Dorothy got word that her friend WillEllen had been killed in a knife fight in a bar. Dorothy wrote a speech about the need for better education for black people. Once again, she won the national competition. This time, when she got back to campus, the president wrote her a letter saying, “If you ever give that speech again in public, you will be expelled.”
So, she didn’t give the speech again while she was in college, but she never stopped giving civil rights speeches. Clear up into her mid-90’s, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Dorothy was invited every year to speak at Touchmark, Carroll College or different civic groups. She often started off with her friend WillEllen and how far we still have to go.
Dorothy got her master’s degree at the University of Iowa in speech and child psychology, which was a brand-new discipline. The first textbook in child psychology was written just five years before she enrolled at Iowa.
After she graduated, she got married to George Harper. They had been courting off and on since they met and fell in love in high school at a Methodist Youth Fellowship rally.
George’s proposal was not something you would write home about. He was speaking at a big national MYF event. He was speaking because, in his first year of seminary, he had been elected president of the National MYF organization. Dorothy arranged to be at this event.
As Dad told it, he was sitting on the steps of a building with two of his friends. They had just convinced him to move from Duke where he was in seminary, to the Garrett School of Theology just north of Chicago. They said, “We can have such fun together, but we’re both married now, so George, you’re going to have to get married if you come here.” George replied, “OK. I’ll ask the next woman who comes down the sidewalk.”
He had seen Dorothy heading their way. When she got there, he said, “Hey honey, you want to get married?” She said, “Sure, big boy.”
That passes for romance in the Harper family. What can I say? What they lacked in classy romance, they more than made up for in a deep and abiding love.
Dorothy supported George for his next two years of seminary. She applied for a teaching position at Northwestern University. When she went for the job interview, she was surprised that the person doing the hiring was her speech professor from Montevallo, who had been fired there because of her WillEllen speech. When she walked in the door, he said, “Dorothy. You’re hired.”
Because of her Master’s, Dorothy also had her own radio show in Chicago. Parents would write in and ask questions about raising their children. Years later she said, “After I had five kids of my own, I never would have taken that job.” The job was very controversial because of her preaching that children should not be beaten or whipped or spanked; that there were more loving ways to raise children. She used those with us.
When George finished seminary, he got a job in Nashville as essentially the youth pastor for the nation. He traveled all over the country, giving inspiring talks at youth rallies, and, several times, at events around the whole world.
One of the truly amazing things about the memories of us kids of our time in Nashville is that we do not remember Dad as being an absentee father, even though he was gone most of the time.
One reason was that when he was home, he was so very present with us, and so much fun.
A much bigger reason was that whenever he was gone, our parents would write long letters every day. When we’d get a letter from Dad, Mom would read it, and then we’d talk about all the good things our daddy was doing with people. Then we’d talk about all the fun things we’re learning and things we’re going to tell him when he gets home and how we’re going to play with him.
We did not have an absentee father — and that was one great miracle of our mother’s love.
As you heard from the letter granddaughter Hannah read, every day with Mom was an education. You ask a simple question, and she would give a complex answer and off we’d go learning something new.
All of us always did well in school, because by the time we got to kindergarten, we knew learning was fun. There was one more bit of learning she always continued as well. From the time each of us could speak until just before her death, she never stopped correcting our grammar.
You also heard in the letter about the 14 different people who lived with us at different times in our little bandbox of a house in Nashville. That is 14 “not counting the Cuban family,” but I don’t know why you wouldn’t count the Cuban family. Some of those people became life-long friends like Polly Holmes and Marynell Kliber. The 14 does not count people who only stayed for a night or three or five.
While we were in Nashville, Dorothy was very active in the local Methodist Church, and she was often asked to speak at different groups. because she was a great speaker.
I know the question in your mind. What did she do in her spare time? I’ll tell you. She wrote scripts for national radio shows. One of them moved over to TV and is still on today. It’s the soap opera Days of Our Lives.
Our family moved from Nashville to Great Falls in 1953. The reason was that our parents knew that Dad was going to be fired. Oh, he was doing an excellent job. He was a very inspiring preacher doing big youth rallies all over the country, but there were white and black kids together. Three Southern bishops took him aside and explained to him that the policy of the Methodist Church at that time was ‘separate but equal.’ They said, “Don’t worry, we’re going to hire a black minister. He will be the youth pastor for the black kids, and you will be in charge of the rest.”
The man they hired happened to be one of Dad’s friends from seminary. They held black rallies and white rallies that just happened to be in the same place and at the same time and with the same speakers. The second time that Martin Luther King Junior was the keynote speaker at a giant youth rally, Dad knew his days were numbered.
He took a job as the youth pastor for the Montana Conference of the Methodist Churches. Our memories of Great Falls are that often we would wake up in the morning and there would be 25 people sleeping on the front lawn and in the living room. Yes, it would be another youth group on their way to camp or to a mission project. They would say, “Let’s go through Great Falls and stay with the Harpers.” Our mother, with no warning, could cheerfully make a meal for 25 extra people at the lowest possible expense, and the best possible health, with everybody satisfied.
Just because we moved out of the South didn’t mean we left racial bigotry behind. The great Metropolitan Opera singer Marian Anderson gave a concert at the Great Falls Civic Center, but no hotel in town would rent her a room. Dorothy and George went together to almost every church in Great Falls and organized a public boycott. In a short amount of time, most of the hotels said, “Yes, we will provide accommodations.”
In 1961, the family moved to Helena because Dad was appointed here at St. Paul’s. Well, not this building, but in the old church. Our family lived in the old parsonage. We still had people who would live with us on occasion. Two of our beloved cousins, Dianne and her brother Larry, lived with the family for a while. It was at a time when they really needed some loving parenting, and they knew Aunt Dorothy would provide the place. Later, both of our grandmothers (after both grandfathers died) came to live with our parents for the rest of their lives.
There were other people who also lived with the family in Helena at different times. This does not count people who were only there for a night or three or a week.
We are a very public family. I guess that’s one of the consequences of having the parents that we did.
Dorothy started teaching at Helena High. I think it was for only one year and then Carroll College hired her. She taught there for 30 years in drama and communications. She was a wonderful director of plays, and she sometimes wrote plays for her students, because of their needs. One year there were a couple of Native American students. She wanted them to be able to act out of their own cultural heritage. Several times she had a class with only young women in it. There are very few plays for only women, so she would write one.
Now she wasn’t just a fine director and writer. She was a great actor, and she was in plays at Grand Street all the time. Perhaps the best she ever did was the Grand Street production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” She was the evil Nurse Ratchet, a theater villain so evil it is almost the perfect opposite of our mother. It was spine chilling to watch her in this role. At the end, when they had curtain calls, she came out in character, sneering at the audience. People were booing our mother! At the same time, they were standing and giving her a thunderous ovation.
She was always learning. She taught three decades at Carroll up into her 70s. She kept taking Spanish classes at Carroll up into her 80s. After she stopped that, she still met with friends to study Spanish. In her mid-90s she was still using her acting ability by recording books for the visually impaired at the state library.
Now, our mother loved our father, and he loved her. That constant love was the foundation of this amazing extended family. They poured love on us five kids: Rusty, Hal, Steve, Nancy and Jannie. They were wild about the people crazy enough to marry us. There’s Pat and Janet and Pam and Mokey and Randy. After our sister Jannie died, Randy married Renee Driessen and so we gained another sister. There were five children and five people who married them and five granddaughters. Robin and Molly, Emily, and Hannah and Becca are here. The reason we are having this celebration today is because this is the only day this year all five of them could be here.
Then there are five men who love them, of whom Justin, Robert and Michael are here. There are five great grandchildren with Juniper and Jasper here. If there were a Harper Crest, it would have a “high five” on it.
We only had four cousins. Dianne and her husband Ron are here.
The other three, Larry and Bonnie and Pam, all died very young. Our parents had their share of sadness. Our sister Jannie died at only 47. Other friends and relatives died, of course, and our parents’ siblings. Our father, the love of Mom’s life, died 10 years ago. If you live to be 99, it’s guaranteed that most of your friends in your life will be gone before you are.
Our parents carried a weight of sorrow with them. And yet, they were always so positive. How is that? I conceive of happiness as a thin lake. It’s fun, it’s a diversion, so it keeps you from thinking about the bad things in life. Joy is more like a deep underground river. It carries along with it the sadness as well. It incorporates it. Our parents live lives of deep joy, even as they carried sorrow with them, because they never forgot.
When Jannie was alive, she and Randy would write wonderful plays — funny, clever, deep plays for use in worship here at Saint Paul’s. Often Dorothy would be cast as “the voice of God” from a microphone up in the balcony. Children grew up here in Saint Paul’s, knowing that God’s voice sounds very much like that of Dorothy Harper.
Jesus was asked once, “Can you sum up all of religion in two sentences?” He said in effect, “Yes. Love God with everything in you. And love your neighbors as yourself — the neighbor being anybody in need.” Our parents tried deliberately to live that way.
One of the consequences for Mom was she almost never complained. I mean, almost never. I’ll tell you how “almost never.” Close to the end of her life, she fell and broke her hip. Again. She was in terrible pain, lying on the floor in her room. A Touchmark aide came running in and said, “Dorothy, are you OK?” She answered the way she always answered that question: “I’m just fine.”
Talk about “never complain.” She was not “just fine.” She was spectacular.
Our mother had a secret superpower. As good as she was as a speaker, and as a writer, and as an actor, she was an even better listener. People told her their life stories. Family members, church members, students at Carroll. You were never surprised if you saw her standing in the parking lot in Safeway putting groceries in the car but listening carefully to someone telling her their troubles. Later, when she was living at Touchmark, she had many friends there. They wanted to sit with her at dinner or come see her because you could tell your story to her, and she was still positive.
Staff at Touchmark were similar. Several times we heard a nurse or an aide come into her room and they’d ask her questions about how she’s doing. Then she would ask them a question or two and they’d start pouring out something that was going on that they really needed to talk about. Dorothy listened with an open heart, so your story was safe with her.
For us Harper kids, we always knew that whatever house we were living in at the time, that was not our home. Our home was where our parents were. Our mother carried her home around with her wherever she went. And wherever she went, she invited her family in, And family included anybody who needed a safe home.
If Dorothy were accorded just a minute to speak to all of us right now — you know, before leaving for that grand reunion; what would she say to us about how to live the good life?
Every one of us kids knows exactly what she would say. It would be only one sentence. It was just what she said to each of us the first day we left home to go to Rocky Mountain College. She said, “Remember who you are, and whose you are.”
We remember, Mom.
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