After WWU English degrees lead to unexpected career, Esther Harris set to retire decades later
Esther Harris, left, stands with WWU President Bruce Shepard after receiving her award. In the background are Kathy Wetherell, interim vice president for Business and Financial Affairs; Steve Swan, vice president for University Relations; Stephanie Bowers, vice president for University Advancement; Eileen Coughlin, vice president for Student Affairs and Academic Support Services; and Catherine Riordan, provost. Photo by Matthew Anderson | WWU
Esther Harris poses for a photo after receiving her Presidential Exceptional Effort Award at the Spring Recognition Ceremony in early May. Photo courtesy of Cindy Curtis | WWU
In 1965, a young English student named Esther Erickson stepped foot on the Western Washington University campus to begin her education.
On June 30, 2010, after nearly 45 years as a Viking, she leaves.
“I love Western, and I have enjoyed it tremendously,” she says with a smile. “Working here wasn’t my plan when I graduated, but it’s been a wonderful career.”
Her plan, says Esther Harris, now sitting high above south campus on the sixth floor of the Environmental Studies building, was to be a teacher. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from WWU, she held that dream firmly in her mind and set off in hot pursuit.
It didn’t last long.
“I went away and taught for a year, and I discovered that I really didn’t like it,” she says.
What she did like, though, was Western. A receptionist job opened up in the History Department, and she took it. Then, when the department secretary retired (coincidentally named Esther Ericson, believe it or not) and her job became available, Harris took that, too.
“I took what I thought was a temporary job, and I stayed here 38 years,” she says.
In 1983, Harris got a new job working in what then was the College of Arts and Sciences. Today, Harris is assistant to the dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, where she does just about everything necessary to grease the wheels of education.
“I see my role as providing whatever information and assistance I can to help the dean, department managers and chairs do their jobs,” she says.
Earlier this month, Harris was given a Presidential Exceptional Effort Award by WWU President Bruce Shepard. An excerpt from the comments said about her during the ceremony:
“Many would agree there are few individuals who have supported the academic mission of Western with such unflagging energy, keen intelligence, and professional acumen as Esther Harris.
Esther demonstrates and models the absolute highest of performance standards, a reason why much of her work has become the process that is adopted across the entire campus. With nearly half of all graduating students and the largest cadre of faculty across numerous disciplines, the demands on the dean’s office could not be higher. To Esther, this is just another day at the office.”
Thirty-eight years is a long time to work at one place, and Harris has seen a number of changes in that time. A big one is technology, and flowing from that is the huge shift in worker responsibilities, she says.
“I was fortunate, when I started, to have an IBM Selectric typewriter, rather than a manual typewriter” Harris says. “I used to type professors’ exams and run them through a ditto machine. I did a lot of typing.”
Of course, the advent of computers, and then later the onset of the Internet and e-mail, caused a big change in how things were done.
A party to celebrate the retirement of Esther Harris will take place at 5 p.m. Friday, May 21, at the Squalicum Boathouse in Bellingham. The celebration is open to anyone who would like to attend.
“Computers have made things easier, but they’ve also allowed for so much more to be done,” Harris says. “Now, the easy things are easier, but there are a lot more complex, difficult things to do.”
Today’s world is more challenging, she says, but it’s also more exciting.
“There’s more to do now,” she says. “I used to take a lot of dictation. Now I just write the stuff myself and say ‘Here, how’s this?’”
Of course, Harris has done more than type dictation and write policies and procedures during her time at Western.
“I’ve tried to be a strong advocate for the staff,” she says. “Staff sometimes are neglected when it comes to resources, and I have always tried to be a voice for them.”
Ron Kleinknecht, who worked with Esther for 18 years, including eight as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and later of CHSS, agrees.
“Esther was real champion in support of the department managers and staff,” Kleinknecht says. “In those years (past) when the college had money to distribute to departments, Esther would unfailingly would ask: 'What about the staff?' as she put in her plug for supporting their needs for updated computers, printers or whatever was necessary for them to carry out their departmental functions and to make their lives easier.”
Twenty-five years ago, Harris created a recognition event for staff members of the college, and the event is going strong today.
“It was my idea, as a way to acknowledge the importance of staff to the operation of the college, and I’m very proud of it,” she says. “I think it’s something that staff members look forward to and appreciate.”
Kleinknecht says he knew Harris as a diligent worker with a strong work ethic.
“(She) has never been an 8-to-5 type of employee, although she always worked at least 8 to 5,” he says. “She was the model 'assistant to the dean' who worked to complete the task and to complete it in a fashion that was comprehensive, clear, and that she and the college would be proud of.”
Though she didn’t get to work directly with students much, Harris neither lacked an affinity for the university mission nor an admiration for the high quality of WWU students.
Just for fun, Harris sat in last quarter on a new English class covering the literature of the ‘60s (“Back when I was a student, that was contemporary literature!” she says) and came away with a renewed understanding of the quality of Western undergrads.
“That class was very revealing,” she says. “I was impressed with the students and their engagement in the classroom. Sometimes I’ll be out walking to a meeting and I’ll see all these students and I’ll think, ‘Oh, yes. This is what it’s all about.’”
Harris, a native of Issaquah, has big plans for her retirement. First, there’s the motorcycle trip she’ll take with her boyfriend to Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park and any other national park they happen across along the way. Then, there’s the big game hunting – Harris has traveled as far as South Africa to hunt in the past – and the camping and hiking trips.
But despite the opportunities the extra free time will allow her, Harris says it’ll take a while for her to get used to being away from Western and not so integrally involved in the smooth function of the college and university.
“I’m going to miss it,” she says.