By Tori Hill
As we reflect on Black History Month, we must remember the many shoulders that supported us over the centuries. In this moment, one phenomenal woman, wife, mother, doctor, mayor, and pioneer comes to mind.
She lived, impacted and served our Eden Prairie community for over 20 years. We celebrate and honor this amazing, profound, and legendary African American woman named Dr. Jean L. Harris.
Dr. Harris was Eden Prairie’s first female mayor and its first African American mayor. Elected in 1995, she was in office until her death in December 2001. Harris also served on the Eden Prairie City Council from 1987 to 1995 and was a candidate for Minnesota lieutenant governor in 1990.
Harris advised five U.S. presidents on health policy. She served as Virginia’s secretary of human resources, where she oversaw a $2.3 billion budget and over 22,000 employees.
In addition, Harris was a valued consultant on health issues for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Institute of Health, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Congress. She was a member of then-U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad’s Health Care Advisory Committee.
She was also a highly respected faculty member at all three medical schools she attended: Howard University, John Hopkins University and the Drew Post-Graduate School of Medicine in California.
After moving to Minnesota, Harris became the director of medical affairs for the University of Minnesota Hospital and Clinic. Later she became vice president of the computer company Control Data Corp.
Harris developed an interest in state politics and earned a reputation for her candor, integrity and leadership. She would speak out against injustice at every chance and made a powerful impact.
Ramstad, who represented Minnesota’s 3rd congressional district from 1991 to 2009, shared the following on the House floor days after her passing: “Mayor Jean Harris never met a challenge she did not face head-on, including the cancer that ultimately claimed her life.”
On the day she learned she had cancer, Harris said, “You cannot offer me a challenge I won’t take.”
It was a known fact that Harris was a strong and determined woman. She also wanted to unite and create situations that would bring people from all walks of life together. She believed in producing special bonds between people and inclusiveness that knew no limits.
Ramstad, who died in 2020, described Harris best in his speech on the House floor: “Mayor Jean Harris – a truly gifted and extremely dedicated public servant whose visionary leadership, courage, integrity and compassion has had a huge impact on Minnesota and the nation. Dr. Jean Harris represented the best in public service, and she will be sorely missed by all of us.”
This is very true. She is missed by our community. Harris left many imprints and invaluable life lessons that we all can learn from even today.
When possible, visit Purgatory Creek Park and The Jean Harris Gathering Bridge at 13001 Technology Drive. Look for her “10 Lessons of Life.” These words of wisdom came from a commencement speech at The College of St. Catherine delivered by Harris. They are still applicable.
The following are those lessons:
1. Life is a poker game. You play the hand you’re dealt, and you play to win. This does not mean that you’re always going to be successful or always make the right decision. You will stumble, and you won’t always make the right decision. The important thing is to learn from those experiences which don’t always turn out the way you hoped or expected.
2. No matter what you do, not everyone is going to like you. However, identifying and joining with souls of like and open minds makes progress through life measurably more enjoyable and easier. So forget about the rest. The most destructive waste of time is worrying about what could be if you could only convert the heathens to your way of thinking.
3. Don’t let your life just happen. Live it. Every important decision is a calculated risk. So take the calculated risk. Live your life. Make it happen. You will have fewer regrets at the end.
4. If you want to retain some measure of control over your life, do everything possible to become a player rather than a bystander in the greater forces and movements that shape your destiny or alter the playing field.
5. It is important as individuals and most important as women that we nurture ourselves. We are so accustomed to giving to others; we frequently neglect our own needs. It is important that we set aside a part of each day to recreate our inner being.
6. Don’t let big systems swallow you. If it’s really important, even the most routine and boring tasks offer ideas and opportunities for innovation. It is innovation that generates awareness of your uniqueness and your contributions wherever you are.
7. Over the period of a lifetime, we all develop skills that are useful somewhere, as well as experience and expertise that, when applied to a particular task or at a point in time, helps to move social progress, civilization and cultures forward. Our task is to identify those places and those opportunities and to become involved.
8. If you really want something, go flat out for it. If it’s really important for you to have or to achieve, do everything in your power to prepare yourself for achieving or accomplishing what you really desire. Nine times out of 10 you will be successful; if not, you will learn something of value from one of “life’s little lessons.”
9. No matter where you go in this world, people are more alike than they are dissimilar. Under the façade of clothes, economic strata and class, people are more alike than dissimilar, whether in China, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Phoenix, Chicago or New Orleans. Given the chance, people will embrace another human being even when the deck is not stacked.
10. The last and perhaps most important of my dictums is don’t miss the fun of living. In short, don’t take yourself too seriously a lot. Forgive yourself and others for their faults. After all, we’re all human.
The Harris family established an educational fund in memory of her to help keep her vision, caring leadership and mission to level the playing field for all alive.
The scholarship funds have been managed by local Eden Prairie 501c3 organizations. Eden Prairie Community Foundation currently manages these funds and presents the scholarships to qualifying EP graduates at the foundation’s annual “EP Gives” event.
This year’s event is on May 14 at the Minnetonka Marriott Hotel. All high school seniors from Eden Prairie can apply for the newly expanded set of Dr. Jean L. Harris Scholarships until March 28.
To find out more, go to the foundation website, epcommunityfoundation.org, or contact Mark Weber at (952) 949-8499 or mweber@epcommunityfoundation.
This scholarship helps create opportunities for upraising leaders and scholars to change and make a positive difference in everything that life presents.
This is how Dr. Jean Harris rolled!
Harris would be very proud of all of the scholars and how they face the many challenges of this world, which closely resembled the way she had to navigate the system to reach her success.
As Ramstad said, “Jean Harris’ pioneering voice for justice and fairness may be quieted now, but her actions will echo for time immemorial, in Eden Prairie, throughout Minnesota and across America. Jean Harris’ legacy will continue to inspire all of us who knew and loved her.”
Harris put people first and was open and honest in her dealings. She loved and served the City of Eden Prairie proudly. Rest in peace.
Tori Hill is a 30-year resident of Eden Prairie. She is currently on the Eden Prairie Community Foundation and a member of the EPLN Advisory Task Force. She and her husband Leon have three adult children. “For as much is given, much is required” is what Tori lives by daily.