Profile written and provided courtesy Nowell Briscoe ( nowellbriscoe@bellsouth.net )

 

Rufus C. Harris

“Dean of University President’s”

1897 - 1988

 

          When Walton County native Rufus C. Harris completed his years at Yale University pursuing a doctorate in law, he made a decision that would not only affect his life but higher education as well. “I thought I wanted to be a lawyer,” he explained in an interview years ago, “but I changed my mind several times.  Getting my doctorate in law gave me an interest in teaching. I decided to be a legal scholar, a teacher.”

It was this decision that led him into the field of higher education where he became president of not one but two major universities during his 56 years as a college administrator. Prior to his years as a university president he served as dean of Mercer University’s Law School from 1925-1927 and dean of Tulane University’s Law School from 1927-1937.

          Rufus Carrollton Harris was born January 2, 1897 in Good Hope, Georgia to Virgil Vascar and Jessie Green Harris.  He graduated from Monroe High School in 1914 where he was classmates with Monroe native Mary Louise Walker.  He graduated from Mercer University in 1917, a Phi Beta Kappa with a major in Greek and Latin.  Following his graduation from Mercer, he and Miss Walker were married shortly before his entering the service during World War I.  He served as a first lieutenant in the infantry with the Army and was wounded in action in France which resulted in his receiving the Purple Heart. 

          After his release from the Army, he entered Yale University to study law.  It was shortly before his graduation in 1924 he made the decision to switch professions and enter the field of higher education where he achieved national prominence as an educator.

          Dr. Harris’s years as president of Tulane, from 1937-1960, was the longest in the school’s history at the time according to former school official Horace Renegar.  When the time came for Dr. Harris to think of retiring, he asked Tulane’s trustees for retirement in 1958 and received permission from the board in 1959.  Just as he was ready to close out his years at Tulane, he received a call from his alma mater, Mercer, in 1959, asking him to assume the presidency after the sudden death of President George B. Connell. It was impossible for him to say no.  He accepted the invitation thinking he would only be there a short time.  He moved from presiding over a university of 6,714 students to a campus of 1,238.  When asked by reporters why he accepted the role of leading another university, he responded, “I am wanted and I am led to believe I can be useful.”  His tenure at Mercer, from 1960 -1980 was the second longest in Mercer’s history.

          Returning to Georgia he found a state in crisis.  He sided with those wishing to keep open the public schools rather than close them in defiance of a 1959 federal court order to desegregate Atlanta’s public schools.  In 1963 he made a historic request of Mercer’s trustees. “Now I would ask the trustees to do a brave thing.  I would ask you to remove the barrier to blacks because I believe it is the right and Christian course to take.  I ask it also because the discrimination is, I believe, a barrier to Mercer’s progress.”  The trustees agreed on April 18, 1963.

          Another heated issue confronted Dr. Harris and Mercer, that of accepting federal grants.  The Georgia Baptist Convention turned down the university’s request to do so three times in the middle ‘60’s.  In February 1969, Mercer’s trustees voted to defy the state’s convention and request $500,000 in federal funds for use in campus expansions.  In November, the state Baptists recognized the autonomy of the university’s trustees.

The late 1970’s found Rufus Harris again ready to retire.  He chose one of his vice-presidents, Dr. Kirby Godsey, to assume the presidency when he stepped down. When Dr. Godsey took over as president, Dr. Harris thought his career in education was at a close.  But Mercer’s board of trustees was not ready to let Rufus Harris go quite yet; he was still a vital and necessary part of Mercer University.

          When Dr. Godsey was installed as president, the trustees immediately named Dr. Harris chancellor of the university, the first person to assume the title which he kept until his death.

          During his years as Tulane’s and Mercer’s president, Dr. & Mrs. Harris maintained a home in Monroe on McDaniel Street in a beautiful, two story white frame house with a white picket fence surrounding the property.  It was here the Harrises’ would come to relax and enjoy their time away from educational duties where they could enjoy visits from friends and family.

          It was because of my father’s friendship with Dr. Harris that I enrolled at Mercer after graduating from high school.  My father liked the small, quiet Mercer campus and felt that if I went there, Dr. Harris might be able to keep an eye on me making sure the necessary studying was being done.  During my time there Dr. Harris and I developed a warm friendship.  When I left Mercer to attend another college, I began a correspondence with him that continued to his death.

          After assuming his new post at Mercer, one of my letters asked what exactly a chancellor does.  His return reply on the letterhead, “Office of the Chancellor” said, “What does a Chancellor do?  Why, he chancels!” was his quick reply.  He continued, “He chancels by chanceling and he may chancel anything as he sees fit!” For fear of encouraging his lion-like wrath, I decided not to pursue the questioning any further.  Now, when I re-read the correspondence of those years, I am honored and humbled by the bond of friendship he bestowed upon me.

          While small in stature, Rufus Harris commanded a large and dominant profile in his opinions, thoughts and actions as he presided over the universities he loved and tended. He could be a warrior as well as a charming Southern gentleman, enjoying a good joke and a laugh not only with the students, faculty and staff at his universities but also with his friends and neighbors when visiting in Monroe. 

          In his 91st year, Dr. Harris suffered a broken hip.  Complications from the fall along with his age resulted in his death in Macon on August 18, 1988.  Largely attended graveside services for the renowned educator were held in the family plot at Rest Haven Cemetery in Monroe on August 20th, 1988.

          The love and dedication Rufus Harris held for the field of education brought him many honors, awards and accolades during his long life as well as prestige to Monroe, the town he called home.  Those who knew and loved  him from both the professional and personal standpoint can take pride in the decision he made so many years ago that changed not only his course in life but gave the field of education one of its finest, most dedicated and beloved educators.