J.R. and Alberta Harris (front row, left) sent nine of their children to the University.
The 1970s were a time of change for the United States. Three presidents occupied the Oval Office during that 10-year span, which is remembered for Watergate, gas lines and the last of the moon landings. Anti-war rallies, common during the decade’s early years, were replaced by the rise of social and environmental movements. Hank Aaron supplanted Babe Ruth as the all-time home run leader, and Atari introduced Americans to a new way to pass the time. Elvis died, The Beatles stopped making music and disco was all the rage as the 1980s approached. Although change was sweeping the nation – even in Kirksville where the school officially became NMSU in 1972 after trading the word “college” for “university” in the name – there was one constant on campus. No matter the year, it was always possible to find at least one of the Harris siblings working toward a degree. Six of them attended the school during the ’70s.
J.R. Harris owned and operated a gas station in Macon, Mo. His wife Alberta was a homemaker and assistant elementary school teacher. When the time came for college, they sent nine of their 10 children on the short trip north to Kirksville.
“My parents were looking for an affordable place that was close to family,” Tony Harris (’77) said.
For the better part of two decades there was usually a member of the family enrolled at Truman, starting with Michael in the early 1960s all the way through Dawna in 1982. Attending the University became a family tradition.
“I was influenced a great deal because my siblings had fairly positive experiences during their time at Truman,” Jerri Harris (’81) said. “The opportunity to attend college at the same time as two of my siblings was really cool and provided me a comfort factor that I may not have experienced otherwise.”
The University does not officially keep track of family lineage statistics, so it is impossible to know where the Harris family ranks historically as far as the number of siblings to attend, but one thing is for sure. In terms of making Truman a family tradition, the Harris family is not alone.
In addition to being Truman siblings, twins Alex (left) and Nick Ponche are also the children of alumni. Their parents Tom and Diane received degrees from the University, as did their sister Kalen.
During the 2015-16 school year there were approximately 175 sets of siblings attending Truman, comprising more than 350 students with some sort of family tie.
Twin brothers Alex and Nick Ponche separately made the decision to attend Truman.
Being at the same school has been convenient for a number of reasons, not the least of which is always having someone to share the drive with to their home in St. Charles, Mo.
“The only real disadvantage I can think of would be the confusion other people may experience due to our appearances,” Alex said. “‘Hey, Nick,’ is a greeting I hear often when walking to class.”
The brotherly bond is not the only family connection for the Ponches. Both of their parents, Tom (’80) and Diane (’79, ’80), are alumni of the University. Sister Kalen Ciszewski (’07) also earned a degree at Truman. Despite those ties, the twins never felt pressured to attend. Affordability was a factor, but so were the results they witnessed firsthand.
“Having seen my parents lead successful careers as I grew up, I was inherently aware that a Truman degree could be worth something,” Alex said. “My sister graduated from Truman when I was in middle school, and I was able to see her postgraduate success in a more immediate light.”
Nick and Alex are in good company in regards to continuing a family legacy. Of students attending during the last year, 339 had at least one parent who received a degree from the University, while more than 100 were the offspring of an alumni couple.
Convenience might have been a big reason the Harris family started attending Truman, but the quality training they received played a part in why so many of them kept coming back.
“Truman at the time had a great reputation for preparing education majors for teaching positions,” Tony said. “The classes and advice of the professors and counselors were valuable in that process.”
Six of the Harris siblings pursued education-related degrees. Tony, Debra and Dawna were the only ones to enter the field professionally, but regardless of the degree earned, all of the siblings moved on to successful careers.
“Though I didn’t follow my educational field, the fact that I am a college grad opened employment doors for me,” Herman said.
The vice president of his senior class, Herman (’72) worked as a supervisor for the Peabody Coal Company for 19 years. He followed that with a 22-year career with the Missouri Department of Transportation. Excluding his time at the University, Herman has always called Macon home. This afforded him the opportunity to care for his parents in their later years. He is the last member of the original family of 12 to reside in Macon.
A desire to stay close to family was a motivating factor for many of the Harris siblings to attend Truman, but as the years passed, life pulled them in different directions. A majority of them still live in the Midwest, but none of them share the same hometown. Michael and Jerri are the outliers, living in California and Georgia, respectively. Michael is a retired customs broker and Jerri works for Siemens in demand creation for trade shows and events. She also was an Olympic Village director during the 1996 Atlanta games.
Despite the physical distance, the family still remains close.
Some Truman family trees stretch far and wide. It is common to see generation after generation attend the University. At the same time, new family trees are started on campus every year. During their time as students, many individuals meet the person they will one day marry.
According to the Office of Advancement, Truman has more than 10,000 alumni couples. Together, they account for nearly 20 percent of University alumni. Rarely a year goes by without an on-campus proposal or a wedding in the Sunken Garden.
David and Becky Crawford met in a sign language class. They have been married for 16 years and have three children, Gabe, Nathan and Ellie.
During his sophomore year, David Crawford (’00) requested to take a sign language class typically reserved for senior students. Crawford spent his summers working at a camp for critically ill and disabled children, and learning sign language would allow him to assist those with hearing impairments. In class, he regularly sat by Becky Winfrey (’98) and the two developed a friendship.
“My friends knew him from a previous class and really raved about how cute and nice he was,” Winfrey said. “I called him a fruitcake using sign language, and I think that’s what hooked him.”
“We soon became study partners, but I think it was just an excuse for us to spend some time together,” Crawford said.
Winfrey was among a small group of friends that Crawford recruited to work at the summer camp with him, and it was there that they became more than study partners. They have been married for 16 years and have three children.
The Harris family tree grew a few new branches because of Truman. Kevin and Debra both met their spouses on campus.
Although he earned a degree in business administration, Kevin (’81) was also active with the University band. He counts the relationships he made through the Music Department as some of the most important in his life, even today, but one in particular stands out among the rest. Mutual involvement in the marching band brought Kevin and Lisa Ellington (’83) together and they were married in 1985. After Kevin’s career took them to St. Louis, Kansas City and Detroit, they now reside in Lenexa, Kan. Kevin has spent the last 20 years in media marketing and Lisa is a clinical trials researcher.
Lisa’s marriage to Kevin is not the only branch on her Truman family tree. Her cousin Desirae Ellington (’80) also earned a degree from the University.
Debra and husband Irvin West (’76, ’77) both graduated from Truman as well. After being a stay-at-home mother during her children’s formative years, Debra later put her Bachelor of Science in Education and Master of Arts in speech pathology degrees to use in the Jefferson City public school system. She still works for the district two days a week as a speech pathologist in a kindergarten special needs transition classroom. Irvin earned two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree and is now retired after a career with the state of Missouri.
Although it occurred under the name West, Debra and Irvin’s offspring carried on the family tradition of attending Truman. Both of their children, Adrienne (’03) and Daniel (’10), received degrees. Adrienne also met her husband, another Truman graduate, while attending.
When all is said and done, including spouses and children, the Harris family tree touches 15 individuals who account for 18 degrees cumulatively.
Many students and alumni never have direct family ties through Truman, but usually they can still find that inclusive atmosphere. Parents feel safe about dropping their students off on move-in day because of the level of camaraderie they experience on campus. Many alumni can attest to making some of their closest, lifelong friends within the first few days of classes.
That sentiment resonated with almost all of the Harris siblings as well.
“I remember making many friends, and how helpful the staff were if you had any problems,” Kerry Harris said.
Kerry, who retired from Associated Elected in 2013, credits the University with showing him how to form bonds with his co-workers.
Debra and her husband still enjoy close relationships with a handful of people they met at Truman.
Tony remembers his four years in Missouri Hall, and being one of a select few students who were invited to the home of President Charles McClain for a monthly lunch meeting with students.
Jerri enjoyed her time at Truman to the extent she found excuses to stay around as much as possible.
“The campus, and the city of Kirksville, had a real hometown feel, which was a good transition and comfort factor for a small-town girl that grew up 34 miles away in Macon,” she said. “I loved the college environment at Truman so much that over the course of five years I purposely stayed during the summers and took additional classes that I didn’t necessarily need, while working part-time at McDonald’s off campus.”
As a resident advisor, some of Jerri’s fondest memories included all-night movie-fests with other Ryle Hall students.
“There was always something to do on campus and in the town, whether it was going to a sporting event,
play, concert, movie or just having a pizza at Pagliai’s,” Herman said.
The connection can come in many forms. It might be a daughter moving in to the same residence hall her mother and grandmother occupied before her. Often it is twins taking the journey to Kirksville together. Occasionally it comes in the form of old friends who have known each other so long they simply refer to one another as brother, long after their fraternity days have passed. No matter what it looks like, they are all part of the Truman family.
Although their career paths led them in different directions, the Harris family has remained close. Front row: (from left) Debra, Jerri and Dawna. Back row: Kerry, Kevin, Herman and Tony. Not pictured: Michael and Hubert.