In Memoriam Mrs. Mary Harris

January 11, 2013

Filed Under: Alumni, Faculty, Students

On Saturday, December 18, 2010 the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice lost a very dear friend, and someone that many alumni knew very well, Mary Harris. Known as “Mary” to faculty, and “Mrs. Harris” to thousands of students, she was a tireless worker, a dedicated professional, and a friend to all.

A lifetime resident of Tallahassee, Mary Meginniss Harris was born on February 21, 1915, and as a child lived downtown on the site of the current City Hall. She graduated from Florida High School in 1933 and from Florida State College for Women in 1937. Following her graduation from FSCW Mary taught at Leon High School in the Home Economics Department. She married Joseph Richard (Dick) Harris on Christmas day in 1939 and they had one son, Joseph (Joe) Richard Harris, Jr.

Mary was a valued and very special member of the staff in Criminology and Criminal Justice from its very beginning. Starting in 1965 as the first full time staff member, – before Criminology was a College, before it was a School, before it was even a Department – there was Mary Harris. Her title could have been Secretary, Administrative Assistant, Office Manager, Guidance Counselor, Bookkeeper, Undergraduate Advisor, Graduate Coordinator, Internship Director, Faculty Counselor – you name it – she did it all, and she always did it with care and compassion!

If an undergraduate student came in with a question or a problem with which they needed help, they went to Mrs. Harris. If a graduate student just needed somebody to commiserate with when they were having a bad day, they went to Mrs. Harris. If a new faculty member didn’t know some of the Universities policies or procedures, they went to Mrs. Harris. If a faculty member’s car wouldn’t start and he desperately needed a ride to the airport to catch a flight, he went to Mrs. Harris. (Yes, that was me!) She was always smiling and gracious as she responded to the needs of others, and if she had a fault it was in never learning how to say “no” to a student or faculty member who needed her help.

Mary was seldom sick, or if she was it never showed, and it certainly never kept her from coming to work. But maybe that’s the key! I don’t think Mary ever saw it as work; it was more like a calling. She was needed, she was appreciated, and she responded.

I have a vivid memory of the only time I ever saw Mary cry. I had stopped by to ask Dean Czajkoski a question and she told me that someone was in his office. At about that time Gene opened the door and asked Mary to come in. A few minutes later the person who had been in Gene’s office left and it was a man in military uniform. Mary had just been informed that her son Joe, who had graduated with a degree in criminology from FSU in 1969, had been killed in Vietnam. She came out of the Dean’s office and sat down behind her desk. She was crying rather quietly and seemed to be in a state of shock. As Gene and I tried to console her, she picked up a student folder she had been working on and began to calculate a GPA as part of the student’s graduation checklist.

I was Interim Dean for a couple of years in the late 1980’s, and during that time I developed a personal and professional appreciation for how helpful Mary could be to the Dean. We worked together side-by-side and I could always count on her to assist me when I was tackling a Dean’s office task for the first time. I might start to do something in a particular way and show it to Mary to see what she thought. It was not uncommon to have her say, “well you can do it that way if you think that it is best, but we usually find that it works better if we do it this way.” I would think about it and almost always decide that she was right and do it the way that she suggested. In dealing with personnel issues she would frequently use a Southern expression, “you know that you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.” Mary was wise well beyond her years.

Mary retired from FSU in 1990, but she never really left Criminology. She continued to participate in various formal and informal meetings, social functions and ceremonies of the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice. She also established an academic endowment in the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, the Joseph Richard Harris, Jr. Memorial Endowment for Excellence in Criminology and Criminal Justice.

When she established the endowment, a quote from Mary in the Florida State Times (Oct., 1996) perhaps best summed up what always motivated and inspired her. “The students were always our first job. At Florida State we always made sure that everything we did was in the best interest of the students. I hope this endowment will enable the School of Criminology to provide excellent instruction and personal attention to its students.”

Mary is gone, but her memory and her many contributions to the students in the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice will live forever through the Joe Harris Memorial Endowment Fund.

All of us who had the pleasure of knowing and working with Mrs. Harris owe her a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid. The best that we can do is to try to follow the example that she set for us and remember that “the students are always our first responsibility”.

Rest in peace Mrs. Harris.

Gordon P. Waldo, Professor Emeritus
College of Criminology and Criminal Justice
Florida State University