THERE ARE A FEW special people who have no particular reason to do anything to help the less favored in their community, but who do so anyway. Nancy Harrison, who died of cancer Thursday at 58, was such a person - but that doesn't begin to tell it all. It wasn't just her willingness to share wealth or donate time for community projects, for this she always did without regard for any personal credit. It was her sensitivity that earned Mrs. Harrison the love and respect of concerned citizens from every part of the city.
Mrs Harrison's commitment was as simple as her civil accomplishments were not: Her commitment was to getting things done for people, for the city's children in particular. In 1964, in the wake of demographic upheavel, court decisions and other changes that threatened to undo this city's schools, Mrs. Harrison was determined to preserve a working system of public education here. As a co-founder and later executive director of District of Columbia Citizens for a Better Public Education, Mrs. Harrison was never content just to lend name and money; indeed, she really wasn't content to let any school issue go by without a thoughtful (and often quite colorful) assessment of the pros and cons.
On school questions - or anything else in the community that she thought needed attention - Mrs. Harrison always did her homework before plunging in to help find the answers. SHe didn't have much use for pie-in-the-sky, do-good rhetoric. Perhaps it was her experience as a labor organizer in the 1930s, but no one ever accused her of playing Lady Bountiful. As a close friend recalled, "she was an old pol, in the best sense," able to blend principle and realism, to appreciate the give the take of compromise.
Moreover, Mrs. Harrison was relentless in her organizing and lobbying efforts on behalf of public education, gading people into participation through ideas, information and debate. As a byproduct of this marvelous vigor, she also was a font of lively, pertinent anecdotes about our town.
Above all, mrs. Harrison believed that, however difficult this city's progress toward local self-government might become along the way, the principle of participatory democracy had to be extended and defended. For this inspiration, and for being the lively, affectionate, demanding friend that Nancy Harrison was to so many people in thic city, a better Washington is grateful - and will miss her.