Elsie Bowie Harber
Grandmother, teacher, writer, traveler, activist
Longtime Claremont resident Elsie Bowie Harber died peacefully at rest in the early morning of Wednesday, May 4, at the Health Services Center in the Pilgrim Place retirement community. 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 served as block watch captain during World War II. At 23 years of age older than her mother, her father retired when young Elsie was 12. In a role reversal unusual for the time, her mother returned to teaching full time and her father stayed home through her and younger sister Alice’s teenage years, modeling for them a career path in education as well as an active retirement in public service.
She grew up in a warm house heated by coal her father shoveled; family meals included the fruits of a bountiful victory garden tended by her mother; and her childhood was rich with love of family, friends, the church community, and recognition for her outstanding scholarship and musical abilities on the piano. Early on she displayed a love of literature and self-identified as a writer, composing poems in elementary school and articles for the high school newspaper.
Reflecting in adulthood, she wrote that her hometown Louisville was “a river town whose inhabitants had a penchant for both staying, deterred by the falls of the Ohio River, and moving on eased by the locks of the canal.” She took the path of the locks, graduating with degrees in English and history from the University of Kentucky, and accepted a year-long teaching position at Stuart Robinson School, a Presbyterian mission school in an impoverished area in the hills of eastern Kentucky.
Descended from a long lineage of Presbyterians, she pursued graduate study of Christian education at Princeton Theological Seminary with her college sweetheart and fellow seminarian Joseph J. “Jay” Harber. They were married in 1955, and like many young wives of the period she worked her husband’s way through school by teaching elementary school until she was let go from the Hightstown, New Jersey school district in 1959 for being visibly pregnant.
She supported Jay as a pastor’s wife (“two for the price of one” was the rueful clergy joke of the day) in multiple parishes in Washington, D.C. and Charlottesville, Virginia, the last and longest an urban ministry at the Claremont Avenue Presbyterian Church in Jersey City, New Jersey. Together they deepened their participation in the struggle for civil rights while raising two children, James J. “Jim” Harber, and Elizabeth E. “Beth” Harber.
In early 1964, she remained home with the children to allow her husband to travel with other pastors and rabbis to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to protest the unjust suppression of voting rights of Black residents. In 1965, the couple extended their urban ministry by creating and leading a preschool program which later developed into a better funded program called Head Start.
The parish at the Claremont Avenue Presbyterian Church presaged a cross-country camping trip/move in a Volkswagen bus affectionately referred to by the family as “a covered wagon” to the City of Claremont in California. Resuming her teaching at the Pomona Unified School District, she worked at every level through secondary school, held department and district leadership positions, and revamped Garey High School’s English curriculum to better serve and reflect the growing diversity of the student population. She loved her students and was proud of helping them build language and writing skills to launch them into trades, careers, and college. She was an early adopter of the Apples for Teachers program that donated an Apple IIe computer and printer in 1984. She continued her own studies and in 1976 earned a graduate degree in liberal studies from the Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University).
Participating in the giant peace rally at the Rose Bowl in 1982 and observing the influence of the Nuclear Freeze movement on the November elections that year gave her reason to hope for “renewed consciousness of the fragility of this planet.” In 1995 as co-chairs of the Peacemaking Committee of the Claremont Presbyterian Church, the couple drafted the statement on an inclusive church, asserting “we welcome all persons into membership regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, marital status, socioeconomic status, physical or mental challenge.” In 2001, the Pomona Valley Human Relations Council honored the Claremont couple with lifetime membership for their humanitarian efforts, noting their lifelong activism for peace, justice, and racial harmony.
She enjoyed 30 years of retirement and travel with her beloved husband to her son’s wedding in the German hometown of her daughter-in-law, Susanne Meyer, and also to Mexico City, Greece, England, Scotland, France, Alaska and Switzerland.
All her life, she loved planning social events and family celebrations. She will be remembered by family and friends as a great master of ceremony, especially for her careful assistance in planning the annual Pilgrim Place Festival turkey lunch meal or arranging festive holiday dinner tables in the Abernathy Hall for her Sunday dinner guests. She loved music, playing her piano, participating in the church’s bell choir and visiting concerts and theater in Downtown Los Angeles. The couple were both excellent cooks and traveled with Elderhostel to learn European cooking. Many family holidays were spent around a large oak table sharing their cooking, particularly while both of their 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 annually thereafter, she composed a letter that combined cheerful family news of her children and later their spouses and her grandchildren, with sobering concerns for society, democracy, and the world, formatted to fit the holiday paper on which it was printed. She remained ever hopeful and wished for friends and family that “your holidays will be full — of relationships and renewed connections to the human family, and of abiding joy and peace.”
Predeceased by her husband, she is survived by her son Jim Harber, a professor of microbiology and virology (Susanne Meyer, a UCSB research scientist) of Newbury Park and Santa Barbara; daughter Beth Harber (Henry Kay) of Baltimore, Maryland; grandsons Louis Kay of New York City, and Paul Kay of Charlottesville, Virginia; sister Alice; sister-in-law Nancy Harber; aunt Jeannine Kiser; and many nieces and nephews.
In lieu of flowers, donations can 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 be held virtually at 2 p.m. July 22.