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Eight isn't enough

Williamsport father imparts life lessons to his 17 children

Williamsport father imparts life lessons to his 17 children

June 20, 2004|By ANDREA ROWLAND

WILLIAMSPORT - Carney Harrell showed his 17 children that faith and hard work can breed success - even in the face of overwhelming odds.

"My father taught us never to say you can't do something," said Paul Harrell, 49, who lives with his father and two of his eight sisters - Ruth and May Harrell - at the Williamsport area home the family built in 1966. Carney Harrell's brood includes 16 surviving children, 36 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. One son died in a farming accident at age 5.

Harrell, 81, "just went out and did things that normal people didn't do - he raised 17 kids," said daughter Gladys Revell, 57, of Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

A sharecropper's son from the Shepherdstown, W.Va., area, Harrell quit school at age 13 to begin working as a farmhand for $10 a month. He was the oldest of five children, he said, and his family needed his income to help make ends meet. Harrell was still working as a farm laborer when he married Mary Lee Hose in 1943. His wife died in 1997 - about one month shy of the couple's 54th wedding anniversary, he said. Although the family struggled with poverty, Harrell said his wife always wanted to have more children.

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"When we had 14, I said, 'That's enough,'" Harrell said. "She didn't think so."

Harrell credits God's grace with helping him support a wife and 16 children on laborer's wages without financial help from the government. This "miracle" is among 33 listed on two yellowed sheets of paper that Harrell carefully unfolds from an envelope labeled "Thank God." The entries include car accidents in which no one was injured, loans that were repaid with interest, and Harrell's recovery from near-fatal blood clots. One entry notes the shoes that showed up in a bag of used clothing on the day one of Harrell's daughters had torn the soles off her only pair.

"They were girls' shoes, too. And just the right size," the teary-eyed father remembers. "We've had one miracle after another. Every one of these is a miracle. Every line is a miracle."

The Harrells' faith buoyed them through the hard times and made the good times sweeter, they said.

"You knew you wasn't going to get spoiled," said Sam Harrell, 47, who has one child.

But Carney Harrell always tried to get his children at least one of the gifts on their Christmas lists, Revell said. Ruth Harrell's fondest childhood memory is peeping through a keyhole at age 6 to see the Red Flyer wagon she'd requested for the holiday.

May Harrell, 48, remembers the fun she and her siblings made together - jumping off the hayloft into the soft bales below, playing cowboys and Indians in the cornfield, pretending they were gymnasts walking a balance beam.

"We didn't have computers and all these things kids have today. We made our own fun," she said. "We thought that was the way it should be. And we were happy."

The family worked together to make sure there was food on the table, clean clothes to wear, and wood or coal to burn for heat. Paul Harrell remembers milking the family's three cows. Sam Harrell remembers mending fences with his father. May Harrell always helped with dishes. And eldest child Ruth Harrell, 60, said she did most of the cooking, laundry and caring for her younger siblings.

"It wasn't fun being the oldest," she said. "But since when is life easy?"

The older kids tackled most of the household and child-rearing responsibilities while their mother took care of the newest baby and their father worked outside the home, they said.

"It seemed like Mom always had a baby, and she didn't have time for the rest of us," Revell said.

Carney Harrell was working up to 75 hours per week at Herman L. Mills' dairy farm, supermarket and gas station. Harrell even worked through his annual one-week vacation because he earned double his normal pay for doing so, he said. In the late 1960s, Harrell landed a job as a correctional officer at the Maryland Correctional Training Institution south of Hagerstown - his first job offering a pension and insurance, he said.

"Nobody ever had no broken bones until he got that insurance," Ruth Harrell said.

"We've been blessed," her father said.

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