Opelika icon dies on 102nd birthday

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By Ann Cipperly
Opelika Observer 

Eleanor Harris was a woman ahead of her time and accomplished more in her lifetime than many women combined.  She made a tremendous difference in two communities and always lived life to the fullest. Although she faced challenges, including becoming nearly completely blind, none of them prevented her from living the motto her mother taught her as a child, “Day by day in every way better and better.”

She passed away April 4, a few minutes into her 102nd birthday.

As an accomplished violinist at age 18, she had no fear of leaving a small Nebraska town by train to go to New York City to explore her love of music at Julliard. After returning to Nebraska to teach, she decided to return to New York for a master’s degree at Columbia.

Meeting John T. Harris would be aided by serendipity. A chance meeting with a stranded passenger led her to choose an apartment in a building next to a restaurant that specialized in southern food. The restaurant was a magnet for transplanted southerners, including John T. from Opelika.

Eleanor and John T. had an amazing life filled with adventures and successes.

While Eleanor was raising six sons, she had also been working in preservation and the arts. In McCook, Neb., she started a historical society, the High Plains Museum and a community orchestra, in which she played the violin. Eleanor had been involved in state art councils and Mid States Arts Alliance covering eight Midwest states.

The Harrises had the vision and determination to build a museum in Opelika, although too many others could not see it happening. Although they were near 80 years of age, neither John T. nor Eleanor would be derailed from their goal of starting a museum.

After a few years of planning, the Harrises founded the Museum of East Alabama on 9th Street in downtown Opelika to preserve local history and artifacts.

Though nearly blind, Eleanor was not deterred from enjoying life and still making the best of every day. After her beloved John T. passed away, she would manage to walk along the wall at Azalea Place to go to the lobby to hear a music program. Eleanor herself could still play the piano beautifully.

Life had not always been easy, but she found comfort and joy in being with her family. John T and her boys were the love of her life, and then came grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

When she became ill, Eleanor’s presence was missed on the museum board, as the board proceeded with the projects she had desired the museum to accomplish.  She would have been thrilled at the number of people at the museum for the recent Taste of East Alabama event two days before she passed away.

A picture of Eleanor and John T.  hangs on a wall in the museum, as a reminder to keep the dream going and make the best “Day by day in every way better and better.”

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