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Pioneering educator Lucy Harmon is remembered as teaching with love and high expectations.
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
As a girl, Lucy Harmon learned at the feet of the acclaimed scientist, educator and inventor George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute, and brought him his favorite warm cookie at snack time.
As a pioneering black educator in her own right, Harmon is remembered as the “grand lady” of the Salem school named for Carver, where she later taught.
Harmon died Monday at 99.
“The impact she’s had on her students and other people, you can’t measure it,” said Wayne Harris, former Roanoke City Public Schools superintendent and a graduate of Carver.
“She stretched those 99,” said her daughter, Marylen Harmon, herself a retired teacher. “She was past a hundred in what she did.”
Harmon and her husband, Chauncey, who was principal at Carver for 13 years, both grew up in Pulaski County. Both were sent by their parents to Tuskegee at age 13 because their racially segregated schools at home ended at ninth grade, Marylen Harmon said.
While Carver himself is remembered as a titan of black education and for his scientific contributions, Marylen Harmon said her parents remembered him as the eccentric man who taught them Sunday school, carried an umbrella rain or shine, and insisted on his fresh, warm “yum yum” cookie every afternoon.
The Harmons married in 1945 and after working at different schools, Chauncey Harmon was named principal of the Carver school in Salem in 1953. Carver was then a black school serving students from all corners of Roanoke County in grades one through 12.
Functionally, however, it was one small community.
Lucy Harmon taught first grade.
“She ran a loving, tight ship,” her daughter said.
“There was tender loving care for students, but there where high expectations,” Harris said.
In the segregation era, Marylen Harmon said, the message from black educators to students was, “You just have to be twice as good.”
And good to each other. Harmon and the other teachers at Carver impressed upon students the need to care for all in the community.
“You could never sit idle, because there was something out there that somebody needed,” Marylen Harmon said.
Harmon never took any privileges herself because she was married to the principal.
“Often the teachers would tell me, ‘You don’t need to do that because you’re the principal’s wife,’ ” she told Salem Communications Director Mike Stevens in an interview for a documentary on Carver. “But I would tell them I’m a teacher like anybody else, and whatever the duties were I always fulfilled them.”
She went beyond that.
Marylen and her brother, Chauncey Jr., routinely brought students home from school to their house on nearby Chapman Street while they waited for evening activities such as sports or plays. The Harmons took them all in and fed them.
“You felt at home there,” said Harris, who was close to young Chauncey. “I always felt welcomed and comfortable in that home and that was because of Mrs. Harmon.”
The Harmons stayed at Carver until desegregation in 1966. Lucy Harmon taught nearly 40 years in the Roanoke County schools, retiring in the early 1980s. But she didn’t sit still.
She joined her husband in drives to first restore the Carver name to their old school after Salem officials renamed it Salem Intermediate, and later to preserve the old school and site rather than see it demolished or a new school built.
The school and name were special to the Harmons, their daughter said. Carver was someone they’d known personally and been influenced by, and the school was the hub of black life for all of Roanoke County.
“If my dad was willing to step out, she would step out, too,” Marylen Harmon said.
After her husband died in 1993, Harris said, Lucy Harmon remained the engine of regular Carver reunions. “She’s like the grand lady of Carver,” he said.
She also remained active in the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the Spectrum diversity group and other social clubs. She was planning to attend a retired teachers meeting on Friday, her daughter said.
But Sunday night she complained of feeling chilled. So her daughter took her to the hospital. where she was admitted and treated for a urinary tract infection. On Monday she seemed to be on the mend and expected to come home the next day.
As soon as she was left alone, though, she slipped away peacefully.
“She was never in pain. … That was a beautiful way to go,” Marylen Harmon said. “I’ll miss her, but I know where she is.”
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