Earl G. Harrison Jr., 71; Longtime Sidwell Headmaster
Wednesday, November 12, 2003; Page B07
Earl G. Harrison Jr., 71, headmaster of Sidwell Friends School for two decades, died of abdominal cancer Nov. 10 at his home in Washington.
Mr. Harrison, who retired in 1998 after a lifetime of teaching, was credited with guiding the nation's largest Quaker day school through the creation of a diversity program and a Chinese studies program; improving the financial aid available to students; increasing the endowment from $300,000 to $12.2 million; expanding the lower school building; and renovating the upper school building, which was named in his honor.
Colleagues and family members say that even more than his accomplishments, Mr. Harrison showed them a reverence for silence, the hallmark of Quaker life, which allowed him to exercise his thoughtful, compassionate nature.
"Even in tennis, he was very gentle," said Rich Lodish, principal of Sidwell's lower school, who often played Mr. Harrison. "When I would miss a shot, which was quite often, he would come over and was kind and gentle in talking about what I could do better the next time. That's the way he lived life. He would kindly and gently push and prod people to do better and to be better."
Students found him approachable as well, whether on the fields, where he enthusiastically cheered for school athletes, or at graduation, where the school tradition was to have some fun at the expense of the headmaster. One year, the graduates put bells in his pockets. Another year, they dropped pennies in a bucket for his "retirement fund."
During his tenure, a White House resident, Chelsea Clinton, attended the school, as did many other children of high-powered individuals. But those from families that were neither rich nor famous were also students.
"He embodied the Quaker ideal of simplicity, and his own groundedness and centeredness kept everyone on an even keel," said Susan Sachs Goldman, former chairwoman of the school board. "He talked to groundskeepers, he talked to the president of the United States. . . . He was unfailingly, equally open-hearted to them all."
Mr. Harrison was born in Philadelphia and attended Westtown School, where he would later be headmaster. He won a gold medal in the School Boy Mile Relay at the 1950 Penn Relays. Mr. Harrison graduated from Haverford College in 1954 and later earned a divinity degree from Yale University and a master's degree in education from Columbia University Teachers College.
He participated in overseas work camps in Kenya, El Salvador, Germany and Holland. In Holland, he helped rebuild dikes destroyed in World War II.
He was an instructor at Antioch College from 1956 until 1958 and then director of the Council for Religion in Independent Schools. After teaching at Brooklyn Friends School in New York and the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, he became headmaster of Westtown School in 1968 at the age of 35. His job was to bring the traditional Quaker boarding school, founded in 1799, into better harmony with the times.
Mr. Harrison soon broke his leg while playing soccer, and the sight of the headmaster hobbling about campus on crutches seemed to help his relationship with the rebellious students of the era, one of his sons said. Both sons attended Westtown while their father was headmaster.
Mr. Harrison also served on the board of trustees of the Good Hope School in St. Croix for a dozen years and on the board of managers of Haverford College for another dozen years. He was awarded honorary degrees from Haverford and Yale Divinity School.
Survivors include his wife of 46 years, Jean Harrison of Washington; two sons, Dana, of Silver Spring and Colin, of Brooklyn, N.Y.; and five grandchildren.
?2003 The Washington Post Company