It’s a long way from Russell, Kan., to Shelter Cove, a 17-acre beach community situated in the south end of Pacifica: 1,600 miles by car. But it’s the place that Kansas native Mary Harris has called home for five decades. Harris, who had a birthday on June 29, had a big party thrown for her by her Shelter Cove neighbors. Included among the festivities was a trivia game all about the year 1917. That’s the year Harris was born.
The sixth of Ira and Eva Crofoot’s nine children, Mary was born on a farm in Wilson, Kan. Shortly after, her parents moved to Russell.
“My father had been a teacher and a farmer,” Harris said. “He and my mother bought an ice plant in Russell.”
Harris’s father was killed on the job. He had told the city to cut the power to the plant while he made a major repair. But someone wasn’t told and the power went back on. Mary was 4, the eldest was 12 and the youngest was 7 weeks old.
“My mother had lived in San Francisco and liked the area,” Harris said. “She and her mom took us out west by train. My mom bought a home in the Rockridge area of Oakland, and after a short time in real estate, she got a little shop just off of College Avenue. She made a successful business out of sewing and making children’s clothes. She was an excellent seamstress.”
Her mother’s creativity laid the groundwork for Harris’s love of art. She was also dazzled by a visit to an art gallery across the street from her elementary school. At age 7, Mary, who works primarily in acrylics, began drawing in earnest.
Harris married her first husband in her early twenties. When they divorced, she went back to school. She was 32.
“I went to Marin Junior College and majored in art. In my second year, I transferred to San Francisco State University and changed my major to elementary education.”
She married again in her thirties and also divorced. “Both of my husbands were wonderful people. But I was too naïve and self-centered.”
Her first teaching job was in Hanford, Calif. But her heart was back in the Bay Area. It was friends from SFSU who introduced her to Shelter Cove in 1957. They had a picnic there and Harris discovered that among the 18 buildings, number 11 was empty. She moved in and taught kindergarten in the newly incorporated City of Pacifica.
“I loved teaching kindergarten. The students are so open to new things and I could give them lots of art and music.”
A teacher in the school district had taught in Japan and Harris decided she would do that. Nothing was available in Japan immediately, so she headed off to teach in Taiwan in 1960. She taught there for two years, came back to the Bay Area, studied Japanese and art at SFSU, and then headed to Sasebo, in Japan’s Nagasaki Prefecture. Two years later she taught in Germany. One year later she headed to Paris for a two-year teaching stint.
She returned to Pacifica in 1970 and to the school district. She also found another place for rent in Shelter Cove and has lived there since. She retired from the district in 1983, the same year she received her MA from the California Institute of Integral Studies. She went on to teach art for 20 years. As an artist she has been multi-exhibited and still sells her work to this day.
Earlier in June, she was recognized with a proclamation from the City of Pacifica on the occasion of the Mary Harris Art Retrospective at the Sanchez Art Center. Along with her contributions as a district teacher of distinction and honor, her long list of accomplishments noted by the City included: being an active participant and facilitator of the district’s Schools With Art Program (SWAP); being an original founder and studio holder of the Sanchez Art Center; and for her life’s dedication to bettering humanity through her work with children, her work in the arts and her work with various nonprofit organizations that promote world peace.
Harris is a longtime supporter of the Democratic World Federalists, the ACLU, Greenpeace, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Sierra Club, KQED, KPFA, the Sanchez Art Center and the Art Guild of Pacifica. She has friends all over the world, too many to count in Pacifica, and she never allows the 162 steps which she has to climb every time she leaves Shelter Cove to stop her from missing any events, errands or parties. In regards to the latter, there have been quite a few thrown for Mary this past month. (The 162 steps are the only way in and out since the road washed away and the pedestrian trail eroded.)
“I don’t know if I have any pearls of wisdom at age 100,” Harris laughed. “Like everyone else, I have good and bad. You have to concentrate on the good. It makes life easier. And be yourself. Be your best self.”
*This article was originally published July 8, 2017, on www.pacifictribune.com.
Pacifica Tribune features correspondent Jean Bartlett can be reached at [email protected]