Pointe Personalities: Meet Jean Harris
Posted By: Kelli Bullard - 2/5/2020 12:00:00 AM

A stack of books towers on the bedside table next to Jean Harris, as she thumbs through the pages of a novel. It’s one in a series that she borrowed from a friend, and she’s determined to finish it today – even if it means burning some midnight oil. 

In the few short months she has been at Bivins Pointe, Jean has read many of the books in the library (at least any that interested her), so now the Bivins Activity Director makes weekly visits to the public library, checking out titles she thinks Jean will like. Mysteries are a favorite, but she also likes romance, biographies, and memoirs.  Most any genre appeals to her, except science fiction.

Sometimes a mystery will stump her to the point that she has to skip to the end.  “That’s part of my goal when I’m reading a mystery; I’m going to figure this out,” she says. “Once I know who the murderer is, then I can go back and read the rest of the story.”

Jean’s love of reading began in childhood, when she would grab four or five library books on her weekly visit – Nancy Drew mysteries and such. If you wanted to find her on a hot summer day, you’d have to look up in the big oak tree outside their home in Rocksprings, Texas.  Nestled in the spot where the trunk joined a large branch, Jean would lean against the cool bark and read for hours.  “It was a nice place to read, and the breeze would really cool me off,” Jean explains.

Rocksprings was only one of several places she lived as a child.  Jean’s dad was a geophysicist for an oil exploration company, so frequent moves were the norm – to the point that she attended ten different high schools. Wherever the job took her dad, the family pulled up stakes and followed. Houston, San Angelo, and Junction were the Texas towns where they took up residence, along with places like Roundup, Montana; Green River, Utah; Ely, Nevada; Winslow, Arizona; Cortez, Colorado; and Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, Willows, Red Bluff – all in California.

“I’ve lived in so many places, I’ve never been interested in taking trips,” she says.  Jean and her sister, Barbara Jo, spent Christmas holidays and summer vacations with her parents wherever they might be, but that was enough to fulfill her travel quota as an adult.

Two years apart in age, Jean and Barbara Jo were constantly being told they looked alike. “People would ask if we were twins, even in our 40’s and 50’s,” Jean says.  “We couldn’t see [the resemblance].”

After high school Barbara Jo returned to Texas to attend college, and two years later Jean followed in her footsteps.  After majoring for three years in microbiology (known as bacteriology at the time), Jean decided she didn’t want to spend her life growing things in petri dishes.  So she changed her major to history and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Texas at Austin. 

An opening for a history instructor at Amarillo College caught her eye, so Jean applied and was hired.  Barbara Jo landed a teaching position with Amarillo ISD. 

In the early teaching years, Jean sewed her own clothes, a skill she had learned in school.  “Back in the dark ages when I went to high school, we had home economics class where we learned to sew,” Jean explains.  “My sister didn’t have the patience for it, but I liked it.”

She also enjoyed knitting, crochet and needlepoint, which were other hobbies that Barbara Jo never cared for.

Teaching history at the college level was very fulfilling to Jean.  “It always made me happy to see students learning things they didn’t know,” she says.  The curriculum spanned a lengthy time period in American history – from early colonization to the Civil War and Reconstruction, through WWI, WWII, the Korean conflict and Vietnam. 

Jean didn’t use a textbook much; she would give reading assignments to the students and then go over the main points in class.  “If I couldn’t remember all five parts of Alexander Hamilton’s financial program, I would have notes to refer to,” she says. “But mostly I could lecture from memory.”

She also didn’t expect students to remember dates.  “I’d much rather you know what happened than precisely when it happened,” she would tell them.

The best compliment she ever received came from one of her students.  He said he had been trying to figure out all semester if she was a Democrat or a Republican. “You really can’t tell?” she asked. 

When he responded “no,” Jean was thrilled.  “I told him it’s not up to me to indoctrinate you into one political party or the other.  It’s my job to teach you to think for yourself.  I hope that’s what I was able to do.”

One of her favorite time periods to teach was the 1820’s and 1830’s, when John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson were fighting politically.  “Adams accused Jackson of being a murderer and an adulterer. Jackson’s followers accused Adams of being a pimp for a Russian czar and buying gambling devices for the White House.  Those gambling devices turned out to be a chessboard and pool table,” she says with a grin.

“It got down and dirty.  We think it’s bad today but it’s nothing like it was then.”

Jean retired from teaching in 2005 after a career than spanned 41 years. Her sister Barbara Jo passed away in 2006; her mom had passed in 1998 and her dad in 1970.

Jean came to Bivins Pointe in the fall of 2019, and she has enjoyed getting to know several residents who are also former teachers.  Her passion for reading shows no sign of waning, and she’s always up for a good book. 

Spoiler alert: She’s had a lot of practice solving mysteries, so she might tell you the identity of the murderer before you get to the ending. Please don’t hold it against her.