Margery Harriss, 93, city schoolteacher

March 21, 2003|By Jacques Kelly and Frederick N. Rasmussen | Jacques Kelly and Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Margery W. Harriss, a retired, much-revered Baltimore public school English teacher and vice principal, died Wednesday of a heart attack at Keswick Multi-Care Center. The longtime Guilford resident was 93.

After retiring from the city's public school system in 1973, she directed the office of special events at Loyola College, where she received the President's Medal in 1985.

She was born Margery Willis and raised near Hollins Market in Southwest Baltimore. After graduating with honors from Forest Park High School in 1925, she attended the State Normal School in Towson - now Towson University - from which she earned her teacher's certificate and a bachelor's degree in education. She earned a master's degree in education from the Johns Hopkins University in 1951.

Mrs. Harriss was guided throughout her professional career by a couplet that had been recited to her by a college professor: "If your students think English is fun, /no test can measure the teaching you've done."

In 1929 she began her career at Curtis Bay Elementary School. She taught at other city schools until joining the faculty of the Robert E. Lee Jr. School, a Cathedral Street junior high for gifted students, in 1941.

She taught English and history at Eastern High School until being named head of the English department at Woodbourne Junior High School. In 1957, she was named assistant principal at Edmondson High School, where she remained until retiring in 1973.

"She knew how to reach young people," said Milton "Manny" Velder, a retired teaching colleague who lives in Charles Village. "She was a showman. She could put on a lesson that was a work of art, integrating English literature with the history, music and costume of the period. She was extremely creative, and her kids loved her."

"She invented positive reinforcement. It flowed from her. She praised her students for their work. She built them up at a vulnerable time in their lives," said Ann Miser, a former Eastern High student. "She was a great inspiration to her girls. She was more than a teacher. She was a friend and a support system."

One former student, Ann Darlington, said, "She treated us like grownups.

"She brought Shakespeare to life. She was an exceptional teacher and an exceptional woman. She made sure we saw there was a lot more to the world than the classroom," said Ms. Darlington, a former Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting producer.

"Everything I ever learned about teaching I osmosed from her," said her daughter, Clarinda Harriss, a poet and chairwoman of the English department at Towson University. "She was the most with-it, forward-thinking, multimedia person I've ever known. She did what she had to do to engage students."

Sarah Bulin Hanson, a former Eastern High student, said, "She was an inspiration to me. She pulled out the best that Baltimore had to offer.

"In her later years, she continued to be an enjoyable companion. She was a model of what it is to continue to be involved and grow older gracefully. She was a considerate and faithful correspondent, an excellent letter writer, " Ms. Hanson said.

Mrs. Harriss had been a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for more than 60 years, and was also a member of the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood.

"She was also a fire-breathing feminist," said her daughter, who lives in Towson.

Friends recalled that for many years she appeared with her husband of 52 years, R.P. Harriss, a critic for the old News American, while he covered art, music and drama openings at local galleries, concert halls and theaters. Mr. Harriss died in 1989.

Family members said Mrs. Harriss led a vigorous life until becoming ill late last year. A self-confessed night owl, it wasn't uncommon for her to be up reading and writing well into the wee hours.

"She had exquisite handwriting and was the fastest typist in the world," said her daughter. "And when it came to her correspondence, she was absolutely punctilious."

For more than 60 years, she gave an annual party for her wide circle of friends, who ranged from U.S. senators to students, old to young.

The venue varied widely and at times included the Port Welcome steamer, the mahogany-paneled rooms of the Engineering Society, the Hamilton Street Club or F. Scott Black's Towson dinner theater. Entertainment often included belly dancers or a wandering seaman performing chanteys as guests sipped drinks and socialized.

"She looked forward to those parties and was planning one at her death. It was a place where she could hold court," said the daughter.

"Margery worked hard at staying connected. She was still enthusiastically interested in everything and never wanted to lose control. She still wanted to direct things and be herself," said Dr. Carla W. Rosenthal, a Baltimore internist and longtime friend.

Mrs. Harriss was a member of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church.

Services are private.

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Harriss is survived by two grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; a brother, John Henry Hammond of Annapolis; and a sister, Mary Patricia Castillo of Towson. A marriage to John Boylan ended in divorce.

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