Elsie Bowie Harber – The Claremont COURIER
Grandmother, teacher, writer, traveler, activist
Longtime Claremont resident Elsie Bowie Harber passed away peacefully in bed early Wednesday morning, May 4, at the Pilgrim Place Retirement Community Health Services Center. A resident pilgrim since 2003, she was 89 and had lived in Claremont for 54 years.
Elsie was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1932 to James L. Bowie, Jr. and Elsie W. Bowie. James worked for Standard Oil and was a watch captain during World War II. At 23 years older than her mother, her father retired when young Elsie was 12. In an unusual role reversal for the time, her mother returned to full-time teaching and her father stayed home during the teenage years of her and her younger sister Alice. for them a career path in teaching as well as an active retirement in public service.
She grew up in a warm house heated with coal that her father shoveled; family meals included fruits from an abundant victory garden tended by his mother; and his childhood was rich with love for family, friends, the church community and recognition of his exceptional scholarship and musical abilities at the piano. She showed a love of literature at an early age and identified herself as a writer, composing poems in elementary school and articles for the high school newspaper.
Reflecting on adulthood, she wrote that her hometown of Louisville was “a river town whose inhabitants had a penchant both for staying, deterred by the falls of the Ohio River, and for advancing facilitated by the locks of the channel”. She hit the locks, earned degrees in English and history from the University of Kentucky, and took a year-long teaching job at the Stuart Robinson School, a Presbyterian mission school in an impoverished area. from the hills of eastern Kentucky.
Descended from a long line of Presbyterians, she pursued graduate studies in Christian education at Princeton Theological Seminary with her college sweetheart and fellow seminarian Joseph J. “Jay” Harber. They married in 1955 and, like many young wives of the time, she followed her husband’s path to school teaching elementary school until she was fired from the school district of Hightstown, New Jersey in 1959 for being visibly pregnant.
She supported Jay as a pastor’s wife (“two for the price of one” was the sad clergy joke of the day) in several parishes in Washington, D.C. and Charlottesville, Virginia, the last and longest urban ministry at Claremont Avenue Presbyterian Church. in Jersey City, New Jersey. Together they deepened their involvement in the civil rights struggle while raising two children, James J. “Jim” Harber and Elizabeth E. “Beth” Harber.
In early 1964, she stayed home with the children to allow her husband to travel with other pastors and rabbis to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to protest the unjust suffrage of black residents. In 1965, the couple expanded their urban ministry by creating and running a preschool program that later grew into a better-funded program called Head Start.
The Claremont Avenue Presbyterian Church parish was planning a cross-country camping trip/move in a Volkswagen bus affectionately called by the family “a boxcar” to the town of Claremont, California. Returning to teaching at the Pomona Unified School District, she worked at all levels through high school, held department and district leadership positions, and revamped Garey High School’s English program to better serve and reflect the increasing diversity of the student population. She loved her students and took pride in helping them develop language and writing skills to launch them into trades, careers and college. She was an early adopter of the Apples for Teachers program which donated an Apple IIe computer and printer in 1984. She pursued her own education and in 1976 earned a graduate degree in Liberal Studies from Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University).
Attending the giant peace rally at the Rose Bowl in 1982 and observing the influence of the Nuclear Freeze movement on the November election that year gave him reason to hope for a “renewed awareness of the fragility of this planet. “. In 1995, as co-chairs of the Claremont Presbyterian Church Peacemaking Committee, the couple authored the Declaration on an Inclusive Church, saying that “we welcome all people into our membership, regardless of race, ethnic origin, gender, age, sexual orientation, marital status, socio-economic status, physical or mental challenge. In 2001, the Pomona Valley Human Relations Council honored the Claremont couple with lifetime memberships for their humanitarian efforts, noting their lifelong activism for peace, justice, and racial harmony.
She enjoyed 30 years of retirement and traveled with her beloved husband for her son’s wedding to the German hometown of her daughter-in-law, Susanne Meyer, as well as to Mexico City, Greece, England, Scotland, France, Alaska and Switzerland.
All her life, she loved planning social events and family celebrations. Her family and friends will remember her as a great master of ceremonies, especially for her invaluable help in planning the annual Pilgrim Place Festival turkey lunch or setting festive tables for dinner parties. party in the Abernathy Room for his Sunday dinner guests. She enjoyed music, playing the piano, participating in the Church Bells Choir, and visiting concerts and theater in downtown Los Angeles. The couple were excellent cooks and traveled with Elderhostel to learn European cuisine. Many family vacations have been spent around a large oak table sharing their kitchen, especially when their two mothers (Jim and Beth’s grandmothers Elsie W. Bowie and Walsa C. Harber) lived nearby in Claremont in the 1970s.
She was a prolific writer of journals, essays, poetry, applied her skills as co-editor of The Voter, the publication of the League of Women Voters of Claremont. Beginning in 1962 and every year thereafter, she composed a letter that combined joyful family news from her children and later their spouses and grandchildren, with sobering concerns for society, the democracy and the world, formatted to fit the holiday paper it was printed on. . She remained ever hopeful and wished her friends and family that “your holidays will be full – of renewed relationships and bonds with the human family, and of lasting joy and peace.”
Predeceased by her husband, she is survived by her son Jim Harber, professor of microbiology and virology (Susanne Meyer, researcher at UCSB) of Newbury Park and Santa Barbara; his daughter Beth Harber (Henry Kay) of Baltimore, Maryland; grandsons Louis Kay of New York and Paul Kay of Charlottesville, Virginia; sister Alice; sister-in-law Nancy Harber; aunt Jeannine Kiser; and several nieces and nephews.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Ave. Montgomery, AL 36104 or online at https://www.splcenter.org/. A celebration of life will take place virtually at 2 p.m. on July 22.