When I met Pat Harris 16 years ago, she was recovering from the shock of her one-month career as dean of the Howard University Law School. I went to her house on Holly Street for an interview and we talked the afternoon away in her big sunny living room. The subject was the circumstances that had led to her abrupt departure from Howard amid great controversy. So it was a working encounter. But we also became friends that day.
Over the years, this friendship grew and it was, as you would expect, put severely to the test as she took on a series of public jobs and I found myself in the role of editorial commentator on them. There were some awful ruckuses during her time at HUD, and when The Post endorsed her opponent, Marion Barry, in the last mayoralty election, communication all but ceased for a year. It resumed, though, as did the friendship. Over the years, there were many more amicable times than strained ones.
I admired Pat for precisely those qualities that landed her in the soup so often and which made her, I thought, hopeless as a practicing politician, but awesome as a public figure. She was a woman of stunning, electric intelligence, obdurate, uncompromising, given to searching out the moral principle in an issue and. once deciding she had found it, refusing, come what may, to budge. Pat was always independent and (therefore) often desolately alone.
There was a poignancy in this. I felt it that first day we met as I came to understand both the temptation she had resisted in the Howard Law School conflict and the terrific assault she was taking as a result. The students were protesting violently. Their grievances had been essentially against law school teachers and officials who were there before this brand new dean took over. She in fact sympathized with some of the students' complaints.
But they had, among other things, seized the law school building and held it for a time, and she would not, absolutely not -- that's spelled N-O-T -- negotiate under that sort of unlawful pressure. She was outraged that law students of all people should do such things. Just about everybody on all sides of the dispute -- the protestors and the old regime that was being protested against -- wanted her to give in on this point. She wouldn't. She was ousted. She was right.
The Pat Harris I saw that day in the living room on Holly Street was the woman I was to see many times again over the years, as she recurrently got in this kind of predicament: strong, sad, angry, beat-up and yet undefeated all at once. There was a vulnerability, a gentleness mixed with her ferocity.
I sensed and saw this complexity of feelings as Pat fought her way through the bafflements of the past decade and a half, taking stands on racial issues and questions ofpublic policy that often alienated people she wanted as friends and that regularly defied the easy, fashionable, self-protective wisdom of the moment.
But I never saw this particular spirit so strong or moving as it was when I visited her in the hospital and spoke with her on the phone in the last painful months of her life. She had lost Bill and now she was losing her battle to cancer. Pat was, as usual, forthright, strong, outspoken about her illness and her prospects, concerned about how she should die, determined to do the thing right. And all the while, in her physical agony and what must have been deep fear, she maintained the familiar sharp interest in what was going on in the public world around her. Pat Harris finally had to yield. But she never gave up.