Obituary: Hal Harter

Teacher, woodworker, minister


Harold “Hal” Harter died peacefully in his sleep on June 10, 2016, just shy of his 89th birthday at Mt. San Antonio Gardens with his family at his side.

Hal was born on August 21, 1927 in Berkeley, California to Helen and Arthur Harter, and graduated from Berkeley High School in 1945. After high school graduation, Hal enlisted in the United States Navy where he served in a unit that patrolled the coast of China during World War II. He was honorably discharged in 1946.

With the GI Bill in his back pocket, Hal shifted back to civilian life as a UC Berkeley student, where he received a degree in history. His interest in ministry inspired him to complete studies at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, after which he started his career as a Presbyterian minister in El Monte, California.

Hal enjoyed telling everyone that his life path was “Jesus in reverse,” first minister, then teacher and, upon retirement, a skilled and avid woodworker. 

He soon discovered that what he enjoyed most as a minister was teaching, which became his impetus for leaving the ministry to pursue a career as a public school teacher. In 1964, Mr. Harter earned his teaching credential at the Claremont Graduate School and moved to Claremont with his family to begin a new life as an intermediate school teacher.

Mr. Harter taught for 18 years. At El Roble, he and a team of colleagues created a humanities program. When that program ended, he was invited to join a new humanities program being developed by teachers at La Puerta. One of those teachers, Carole, became his future wife. Hal and Carole were married in 1973 and team-taught at La Puerta until it closed. Back at El Roble, the couple, both with a continuing passion for team teaching, developed the English-History Core program that still exists today.

Hal is fondly remembered by his students for creating non-traditional learning environments. On the first day of his world history classes, he would tell his students that the world was Frisbee-shaped. When the students disagreed, he told them their homework assignment was to prove him wrong. There must have been some interesting family discussions at Claremont dinner tables that evening. Enrichment activities Mr. Harter introduced in his classroom included folk dancing, archaeological site field trips and deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Former student Cameron Munter, who went on to serve as US Ambassador to both Pakistan and Serbia, credits Mr. Harter with igniting a lifelong interest in history. Mr. Munter wrote:

“Hal was my first history teacher, and I became an historian, so it’s quite possible that everything that happened to me since 1966 is because of him. I suppose I could say he excited me about the bygone eras, about the historian’s craft, about the interplay of past and present. Perhaps he did.  

But what I remember most is that he taught me about irony, which if you really reflect on the meaning of history, is a pretty important concept. Hal taught me about irony in the way he presented his thoughts: he was deadpan. He said things that were offbeat or funny with a straight face and made us, the students, figure out whether he was joking, and if so at what depth and to what purpose. I wish I could remember an example of this, say, something he said about ancient Egypt or about the concept of stereotypes. Sadly I can’t. I simply remember his way of posing a question or making a statement that compelled us all (or it compelled me, at least) to ask: what did he mean by that? Is there more to this question than meets the eye? A twinkle in the eye, of course, and perhaps even a twitch of a smile on his lips. But after Hal, I never thought about things the same way again.”

Robert Fass, another former student, remarked, “As a middle school student, I became interested in marine biology and wanted to do a science fair project on dolphins. Hal and his wife Carole were my English/history core teachers, not my science teachers. But when I became discouraged about my vision for the project, Hal saw an opportunity to build my self-esteem. He invited me and my parents to his home one weekend where he introduced me to a variety of woodworking tools in his garage. Together we planned and constructed a display with a dolphin suspended in mid-air behind a glittery blue plexiglass frame. We talked through the research for my project and Hal let me explain to him my newfound knowledge as if he was hearing it for the first time. In the end, I was so proud of that simple project. I received an award and that feeling of accomplishment was a major building block in what would become a lifelong love of learning.”

Due to his impact on his students, Mr. Harter could never make a short trip to a Claremont grocery store because he inevitably ran into a former student and loved spending time catching up. He retired from teaching in 1983.

Hal’s desks, tables, bed frames, baby cradles, bookcases, cabinets, decks and fences were popular “must have” items with his family and the Claremont community. He teamed up with Matt Taylor in 2007 to craft the Claremont City Time Capsule, which was placed in the foyer of city hall masked as a bench. Mr. Taylor wrote:

“Hal was retired from teaching when I first met him. I was a student in eighth grade and he subbed as a teacher in woodworking class for a few days. When I rode my bike home that week, I went up Mountain Avenue and saw him in his garage. I did not talk to him, and I did not stop in to visit him, I just noted that he lived there and had a woodshop. Fast-forward about 10 years to when I was in law school. I hadn’t done woodworking since leaving El Roble but decided to make a fireplace screen. I had no tools, no wood and only scant skills. For some reason, I thought of Hal and his shop. I am not sure why, he just struck me as a nice person and someone who might be receptive to me using his shop.  

So I waited until his garage door was open (the universal sign for ‘I’m working in here’), and I just dropped in. I gave him the background information about why I selected him, and he dropped his work and agreed to help on my project. As he told me, ‘When the student is ready, the teacher will be there.’ He was right.

With his help, I created a wood and stained glass fireplace screen that still graces my mother’s living room. That started the process during which Hal became my woodworking mentor. For that I will be forever grateful. I miss him but I think of him when I use my own woodshop because I have his picture hanging on a bulletin board above the saw. I also have his plant stand in my office, so I share space with his creation for 40-plus hours a week.”

Mr. Harter enjoyed classical and jazz music and especially loved to sing. At Mt. San Antonio Gardens, he and resident Joe Erickson would burst into song wherever they met. Yankee Doodle was a favorite. Hal spent several years singing with the Pomona Barbershop Chorus and the Claremont Chorale. He also enjoyed bike riding and tennis, loved playing cards and cribbage and was known to play a mean game of Ping-Pong.

Hal was well-loved by his wife, kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews.  

Mr. Harter is survived by his wife, Carole, and five children from his first marriage to Marilyn Rittenhouse—Charlie Christine Denes, Michael (Eileen), Brian (Terri Ozanich), Stephen Mark (Trinh) and Becky; two stepdaughters, Jennifer Jackman Hott (John) and Jessica Jackman Uy (Allan); 11 grandchildren, Eric (Shanna), Aaron (Libby), Deryl (Nicole), Courtney, Angela, Craig, Kelsey, Shelby, Damien Denes (Katie), Devon Prophet (Mason) and Juliette Uy; eight great-grandchildren, Breana, Mckenzie, Trinity, and Sophia Denes, and Addie, Dean and Elijah Harter, and Emmerson Prophet.

Mr. Harter was preceded in death by eight siblings, Marion, George, Dorothy, Ruth, Charles, Jane, Beatrice and Robert. 

A celebration of Hal’s life will be held Saturday, October 1 in the Mt. San Antonio Gallery. Please call the MSAG office in September for further details.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Claremont After-School Programs (CLASP), where Hal volunteered for a number of years. Visit



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