Some of us crave inspiration. We thirst for it as if it were the last drop of water only if to wet our lips in this unfruitful vast desert we walk. Unfortunately, it is just as rare and therefore just as precious. More times than not, just like with all great things, it is impossible to find when consciously sought after, but rather found when we unexpectedly take a hiatus from the hunt. This when I answered the phone at the Thomaston-Upson Archives. While carried away by toil, I abandoned the quest and unsuspectingly the voice coming through the line was that of the inspiration we all seek. The caller was of Florine Watson Harper and the inspiration to be later discovered would prove indelible. The conversation we had was remarkable and left a great impression on me. However, the fruit of the conversation is what left me moved to write this piece.
As we spoke, Mrs. Harper informed me that she was sending more of her things as an addendum to her collection that we have here at the Archives. A few days later her items came by mail and, as I opened the boxes and began to process the collection, the inspiration was unavoidable. I knew that the lady that was born in the early hours of May 6, 1917 and married Buford Orton Harper in 1941, left an undying impression on me as well as all she has encountered.
One would not be required to perform an exhaustive examination of Florine Watson Harper’s life to ascertain inspiration. Any one of the numerous events, which have transpired in the days of Mrs. Harper, is capable of leaving the researcher spellbound and inspired. Perhaps it would be her independence and determination to succeed when she caught a bus by herself with little money for Bob Jones College in Cleveland TN where she had to wait tables and set hair to pay her tuition. Conceivably, it could be the intelligence she displayed with the highest grade on the English placement test and performing in the upper ranks of the Otis Intelligence Scores at West Georgia College while earning her normal degree. Just maybe one would be stirred by her performing in a Clown Unit at, to only name a couple, hospitals and retirement homes. Other examples could be offered and I am convinced that I could look daily and find something inspirational in the life of Florine Watson Harper. However, the proverbial pot of gold at the end of this magnificent rainbow that is Florine Watson Harper, was her tenure at the Tennessee School for the Blind. While serving as a Brownie Leader and Camp director at Happy Haven Camp; her scout troop took a trip to the Tennessee School for the Blind. While there, perhaps caught unawares such as me, Mrs. Harper uncovered a fountainhead of inspiration in the students which led to her desire to work with the visually impaired; which undoubtedly inspires us all. After 25 years removed from teaching, she went back to school at Peabody College to complete her Bachelor’s degree. As a result, in 1968, she received her degree in Special Education in order to work with the very students who were responsible for the inspiration. Upon this completion Mrs. Harper met with the Principal of the Tennessee School for the Blind and he offered her a job if she would train as a speech therapist. In true Florine Watson Harper fashion, she pressed on and went back to school to earn her Master’s degree in 1970. When hired at Tennessee School for the Blind she initiated a program by testing the hearing of all the students then identifying those in need of speech correction. Mrs. Harper taught at the Tennessee School for the Blind for 14 years and was the school’s first speech therapist. During her professional career she had articles published by Tennessee Teacher, Peabody Reflector, Education and the Visually Handicapped, International Journal, Wesley Christian Advocate, several newspapers and an incredible poem in the George Peabody College’s Trek.
By chance, if this uncertain world creates a moment of doubt and malaise overwhelms you, I encourage you to come by the Thomaston Upson Archives and peruse the collection of Florine Watson Harper. Although I believe your spirit will lift immediately, I am certain the clouds will part when you come upon Mrs. Harper’s time at the Tennessee School for the blind and the inspirational students she taught. Previously, I believed that the populace of this world was broken down into the categories of the inspired and the inspiration. However; now I know of the third, more extraordinary category, of which Mrs. Harper is a part. Now I know that Florine Watson Harper is the one that can inspire the inspiration.
Photograph from the “Mocking Bird” Yearbook Tennessee School for the Blind Nashville, TN. Vol. 19 May 1970
Photograph of Florine Watson Harper while teaching at the Tennessee School for the Blind