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Trailblazer dies at age 88

Lois Smith Harrison helped start Hagerstown Junior College

December 17, 2012|By DAVE MCMILLION | davem@herald-mail.com
  • Lois Smith Harrison was The Herald-Mail's Person of the Year in 2006. She was the first woman to receive the honor.
File photo

HAGERSTOWN — Lois Smith Harrison was a woman who blazed trails in more ways than one, becoming a pioneer for higher education in Washington County, making her own way through a college education in the 1940s that was rare for women at that time and juggling home chores with her professional life that many women today now struggle to maintain, according to friends and family members.

From being one of the people who helped start Hagerstown Junior College to becoming the first alumna of Hood College to be selected as chairperson of the college’s board of trustees, Harrison was known for her boundless energy that was evident “from the time she woke up to the moment she flopped in bed,” according to her daughter, Margaret Harrison.

Lois Harrison died Saturday at the age of 88.

She was Hagerstown Junior College’s first admissions officer and rounded up the school’s first few classes of students, said Guy Altieri, president of the school that is now known as Hagerstown Community College. Harrison went on to serve on the Governor’s Commission for Higher Education.

When HJC started in 1946, there was not a lot of support for higher education, Altieri said.

People in the community feared that if local residents had the opportunity to attain higher education, employers would have to pay them more, Altieri said.

“The college was very fragile back then,” said Altieri, who said Harrison was charged with “selling the college when there really wasn’t much to sell.”

Among those who were recruited for the school’s first students were World War II veterans, who did not have a lot of higher education opportunities then, Altieri said.

Harrison went to local homes and farms in search of bright students for the college, Altieri said.

Ultimately, WWII veterans were among the people who helped get Hagerstown Junior College a successful start because of their positive testimonials for the school, Altieri said.

Altieri said Harrison would have started working on organizing the first classes for Hagerstown Junior College before Atlee C. Kepler became the first president of the school.

Kepler, who died in 2010, was regarded as the founder of the school and who fought to establish the school’s current campus on Robinwood Drive.

Today, Hagerstown Community College has more than 100 academic programs and about 16,000 students taking credit and noncredit courses.

The campus sits on 320 acres, has a budget of about $33 million and has more than 600 part- and full-time employees.

Higher education was just part of Harrison’s interests.

Harrison served on the county’s Economic Development Commission; was chairperson of the board of trustees for Washington County Hospital; was the first woman to receive The Herald-Mail’s Person of the Year Award, an honor she received in 2006; was president of the Washington County Hospital Auxiliary; and taught Sunday school at Christ’s Reformed Church on West Franklin Street for 50 years.

Her deep faith was marked by her decision to write the book “With Courage and Vision,” which detailed the church’s history in honor of its 150th anniversary.

Harrison loved to cook and hoped her handwritten book of recipes titled “Kitchen Memories” would inspire others to discover her delight in cooking, according to her obituary.

Harrison’s life experiences were not typical of women in the 1940s.

After graduating from Hood College in 1945, Harrison went to New York to attend Columbia University, which her daughter thought was remarkable for a female in that time period.

At a time when not many women were going to college, Harrison obtained a Master of Arts in school administration from Columbia University in 1946, Altieri said.

Despite her achievements, Margaret Harrison said her mother never boasted.

“She just wanted to reach out and share the love,” Margaret Harrison said.

Lois Harrison’s son Richard said people probably take for granted the stature women enjoy today in the workplace.

“She broke through some of the early glass ceilings,” Richard Harrison said of his mother.

Lois Harrison, who is survived by three children, was married to Richard Lee Harrison for 61 years. He died a little more than three months ago and Lois deeply missed him, Margaret Harrison said.

In 2007, Hagerstown Community College honored Lois and Richard in a student scholarship tribute dinner.

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