Described by one of her friends, Mary Beth Freeman, as having a “wonderful combination of charisma and confidence,” the late South Carolina State Rep. Jean Laney Harris continues to have a daily influence on the residents of Chesterfield and Marlboro counties, as evidenced by the annual Jean Laney Harris Memorial Celebration hosted by the Chesterfield County Coordinating Council last Friday.
If you never had the pleasure of meeting her, you might visit the library at Northeastern Technical College where a portrait of her in a beautiful blue dress hangs in the foyer. A copy of that same portrait was displayed at the luncheon, as members of her family and the Coordinating Council spoke of her legacies.
Harris was instrumental in forming the Coordinating Council 20 years ago. That’s when she organized a meeting of private, county and state representatives to discuss common problems, needed services and resources. Then and now, the mission of the organization is to “strengthen the systems that provide services to the citizens of Chesterfield County through improved communication, adequate linkage and collaboration.”
Ted Vick, as current representative for District 53, serves as Chairman for the Coordinating Council. Vick said Harris had a tremendous influence on his political career and recalled being lifted over the crowd to see her ride by in the Chesterfield Christmas parade as a young child. “There’s your representative, Mrs. Jean Harris,” he said he was told at the time. “She’s a good woman. She really cares about people.”
“Harris believed,” said Vick, “that if you could bring people of different walks of life together, and let them get to know one another; then the exchange of ideas would naturally take place.” And that’s exactly the kind of wisdom and work ethic that has guided this organization since its inception, he said.
During the course of two decades, more than $2 million have made their way into the various programs and projects through the efforts of the Chesterfield Coordinating Council. Various programs they support have helped battle a number of social issues in the community such as teen pregnancy, youth substance abuse, violence, and childhood obesity. Other efforts supported by the council include the coordination of indigent services for the elderly, those suffering mental illnesses, and the homeless.
Harris began her first term as Representative for District 53 in 1979, and remained in office until her death in 1997. During her time in the South Carolina legislature, Harris served as Chair of the Joint Legislative Committee on Cultural Affairs and was a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. She was instrumental in bringing resources together to establish the golf course at the Cheraw State Park, and the by-pass round town is named Jean Laney Harris Boulevard.
Harris was known for her support of the arts, at both the local and state levels. According to Sherry Leviner, one of the founding members of Cheraw’s OnStage community theater group, when the organization faced some resistance from town officials in the mid-1980s, Harris told them to be persistent. “Sometimes you have to rock the boat a little,” Harris said.
The Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award continues to recognize South Carolina artists on an annual basis. The award is managed jointly by the Traditional Arts Program of the South Carolina Arts Commission and the University of South Carolina’s McKissick Museum.
Three of Harris’ four children attended the event. Rainey Harris Knight and Meg Harris, her daughters, were honored guests for the luncheon. As was Fred Harris, the youngest, who spoke about his mother’s contributions to society; not so much at the legislative level, but at the personal level.
The older son, Anthony Harris, an attorney at law, was unable to attend. Shortly after his mother died in 1997, he was elected to serve the remainder of her term.
Fred Harris gave a glimpse into the life of a “true public servant” with one simple story. “I can remember Mama coming home from Columbia, after a long week in the legislature. And the first thing she would do, was check that old answering machine. This was the 70s and 80s,” he said. “That’s about the time Daddy would be getting ill, because he was ready to go eat at Shiloh. But Mama wouldn’t leave until she’d listened to every message, and wrote down every name and number on that machine.”
And then Friday morning, he said, just as faithfully as the night before, “she would begin making her return calls.”
If you would like to know more about the Chesterfield County Coordinating Council call 843-623-5360, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Staff Writer Karen Kissiah can be reached by calling 843-537-5261, or by email at email@example.com.