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SPJ to establish lasting tribute to Terry Harper

Originally posted June 2009

A Weekend to Remember

By Steve Geimann
Sigma Delta Chi Foundation president
Past SPJ president

Terry Harper’s weekend remembrance, June 6-7, in Indiana was unforgettable, a celebration of “a life well lived.” For me, it was a chance to recall what he has meant to our organizations and to consider his legacy. It will inspire awe.

His SPJ family of staff and volunteers joined a very extended “family” at a lakeside service in rural Indiana at dusk Saturday and a “rip-roaring” party a block from his Indianapolis home on Sunday. In between, the staff executed a Scripps leader retreat for almost 50 journalists. Many didn't know Terry but clearly saw how he had touched the lives of the staff and volunteers. Some highlights:

On Friday, SPJ President Dave Aeikens spoke to the Scripps attendees about Terry and how challenging the past few weeks have been for staff and our boards. He credited Terry for the Society's successes in developing and offering programs. Then it was off to duckpin bowling — a favorite Terry game. We hurled 3-pound balls down bumpy lanes to knock over 10 pins. Most everyone bowled — some of us thinking about Terry and how much fun he had at such “competitions” during the Scripps weekend.

On Saturday evening, SPJ and SDX officers, directors and staff rode by bus into rural Eminence, Indiana, for a Viking funeral at a small lake. After a minister Terry knew from his fraternity read an excerpt from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, which focuses on love, Terry’s sons Dale and Jace, accompanied by Terry's brother, rowed into the lake in a small boat. The boys held a small vessel, perhaps a wooden boat, with Terry’s ashes. At 9 p.m., just a few minutes before sunset, the boys set fire to the vessel and rowed back to a small metal dock as a bagpiper played “Amazing Grace.”

The fire burned for more than five minutes, briefly grew in intensity, then faded as the small craft burned up and slipped under the water. The bagpiper played and played as the little boat floated along.

In the final minutes, a column of light blue smoke drifted up and into the Indiana twilight. Lee Ann, Terry's wife, sat in a chair at the edge of the lake between Terry's mom and dad. The homily, the rural surroundings and watching the small pyre for several minutes riveted those of us standing in silence, listening to the wail of the bagpipe.

SPJ headquarters staff gathered on the metal dock, placed a colorful floral wreath onto the water, watching for a few moments as the wreath floated on top of the water. Then, they hugged and cried together. The hardest, toughest part of the weekend was over.

We all then walked up a hill, accompanied by the bagpiper playing Dvorak, and gathered at a bonfire that spit embers into the now-dark sky. The minister told a story about Terry’s early days at his fraternity, a long-time friend who said Terry was her “first kiss” recalled his days at Oklahoma State University, many of his “favorite” aunts — and more than a few claimed the title — and cousins said a few words, as did Chris Vachon and Joe Skeel, who talked about Terry’s occasional guitar playing for folks in the office.

We spent an hour around the fire, most of us holding candles, before retreating and heading for the bus for the 45-minute ride back to Indianapolis. We gathered back at the hotel and had a final toast with Terry's favorite bourbon, Maker's Mark, and told stories that made us laugh and recalled emotions that made us cry. Terry's role at several national conventions became the most hilarious stories told by the staff.

Sunday night, at the Woodruff Place Town Hall near the Harper’s home, we joined a “rip roaring party” of neighbors and friends, complete with sushi — Terry's favorite — and Maker's Mark. His boys’ friends offered a ukulele “concert” that included “Back Home Again in Indiana.” The room was noisy. The crowd was celebratory. Terry’s karaoke machine, from home, was pressed into service and Motown sounds filled the room, along with other popular tunes from the 70s and 80s. Fraternity associates, singing as a quartet, offered a rendition of Sinatra standard “My Way” that would probably have pleased Terry.

Lee Ann, Dale, Jace, mom, dad, and many relatives mingled with the crowd. The room was warm, filled with remembrances of, as we were reminded, the “loving husband, devoted father of two, association executive, Oklahoma State cowboy, raconteur . . . and bon vivant who never met a stranger.”

I miss him.

Terry Harper served the Society of Professional Journalists for seven years with energy and passion. His work has helped put SPJ in a strong position even as the business of journalism goes through a difficult time.

Terry died June 2 after an almost two-year fight with brain cancer. He was a great person, a tremendous leader and his loss is devastating to his family, friends and SPJ. SPJ would like to create a lasting to tribute to Terry that will honor his memory and recognize his valuable years of service to SPJ. I have appointed a three-person committee of SPJ leaders who are charged with determining what that lasting tribute will be. We hope to have an announcement at the national convention in Indianapolis in August.

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