COLUMBIA — Standing on a chair with a “Women for Obama” button pinned proudly to her quilted vest, Nancy Harter shakes a makeshift display board in front of a room packed with dozens of women.
“Go see the candidates upstairs,” she shouts. “Go see the candidates upstairs.”
She steps off her makeshift podium, gestures toward the poster and says, “I just don’t know where to put this so that people see it.”
The gathering at the Mule Barn on Fay Street in Columbia is the second semiannual meeting of Progressive Women of Mid-Missouri, an organization Harter helped start in 2006.
The 66-year-old Harter makes her way through the crowd of more than 100 women, slightly hunched from a severe car accident she had in her 20s. Within a few steps, one of many acquaintances stops her. When others approach, Harter makes detailed introductions, citing specifics about each person before moving on to another task. Surrounded by some of Missouri’s most socially and politically active women, Harter is clearly in her element.
Five years after Harter’s arrival in Columbia, the city has a new neighborhood association for residents of the Old Southwest, a 450-person group for progressive women and a listserv and discussion group that allows residents to ask questions and voice concerns about city development.
In addition to starting these groups, Harter served on the Process and Procedures Stakeholders committee for the city, stood up for residents against plans for the Crosscreek development at U.S. 63 and Stadium Boulevard, joined the board for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and held numerous events at her home for political candidates.
Talk to Harter briefly and you’ll discover this is not unusual behavior for her. She is a woman who invests herself fully in the place she lives, as she has done in Columbia.
She moved here in 2003, when her husband, Phil, took a job at the MU Law School.
Harter quickly established her home on Glenwood Avenue in the Old Southwest as a community meeting spot. Within a year of her arrival, 60 women from all over Missouri, including former U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan, were in Harter’s home to raise money for Emily’s List, a national women’s organization whose goal is to get Democratic women elected to office, which Harter joined while living in Washington, D.C.
Harter’s first contact in Columbia was Kimberly Lakin Mize, whom she met through the Emily’s List Majority Council. The two began planning a party to raise money for the organization. Once Harter officially moved into the area, they formed a committee and began making phone calls.
“Here she was new to the community, but she made more phone calls and sent out more e-mails than the rest of the committee combined,” Mize said.
In the end, they raised more than $7,000 for Emily’s List.
“She’ll do whatever she can to accommodate and make the event a success, even if that means moving all the furniture out of her living room,” Mize said.
Getting things done has become a part of Harter’s nature, and she’s not shy about enlisting just about anyone to make sure they happen.
It’s a brisk evening in March, and Harter is hosting an open house for school board candidate Ines Segert. As with nearly all her events, a table is set up near the doorway with name tags, informational brochures and the all-important e-mail sign-up for one of her many listservs.
Between giving directions, rushing around with iced tea, distributing bowls of mixed nuts throughout the dining and living rooms, and shushing Panache, her shaggy, waist-high Briard French sheepdog, Harter points out some of the things she loves about her home: the sconces she designed and had crafted when she was unable to find ones she liked; the handpainted wallpaper in the dining room; and the art deco kitchen table she acquired from the home’s previous owner. She explains the process she went through to have the house named a historic property and shows pictures of her family and her two other homes. She talks about anything and everything, jumping from one topic to another with a lengthy story behind each thing in the house.
The guests arrive, and Harter remains inclusive, rarely letting anyone stand on the outside of conversations.
“Long ago I learned the importance of keeping friends and networking,” Harter said.
A few years ago, Harter was asked by Jerry Wade, who was then the chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, to serve on the Process and Procedures Committee after her husband turned down the invitation and recommended his wife.
“We met for a year. I got to know the inside of Columbia, and the group came up with a report saying the system was not working,” Harter said. “It opened up many avenues, and I got to know a lot of people.”
Harter tried to get involved in as many women’s organizations as she could but found there was no avenue for women who wanted to be civically and professionally active to meet in Columbia. She saw that as an opportunity.
“If you don’t like something, go change it,” Harter said.
Through her involvement, Harter met former 25th District state Rep. Vicki Riback-Wilson, who maintained her own small circle of civically involved women. Harter combined her efforts with Riback-Wilson’s and out of it grew the Progressive Women of Mid-Missouri, which first met in 2005 and continues to offer its members the chance to connect.
Once she gets people together, Harter repeatedly brings up the importance of communication, especially among neighbors. In December she brought that spirit to her own neighborhood and began establishing a new residents’ association.
“I like people, and I like to do things that will benefit the place I live,” Harter said.
By April, the Historic Old Southwest Neighborhood Association was ready to go. The new neighborhood association would combine several defunct neighborhood groups, the homes along historic West Broadway and many other homes that had not belonged to a formal neighborhood.
The night before the meeting to finalize the plans, a resident of West Broadway began mobilizing neighbors along his street to opt out of the new association. At the meeting the next night, tensions and voices rose as Harter could see her months of work started to unravel.
Stepping front and center in the room, she raised her hand and simply told the dissenters they were wrong. Her voice shaking with frustration, Harter listed the reasons why Broadway needed to be included in the association. But to no avail. By the end of the night, a smaller Old Southwest neighborhood had a new association.
“Although she has lived in Columbia for only a few years, she cares very much about the community,” Mize said.
When not mobilizing others, Harter makes time for herself. She loves working in the garden and reading. When she doesn’t have time to read the books for her book club, she makes up for it by researching the authors so she can still add to the discussions.
Harter also is taking three classes this term at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
“Unsolicited, she started sending me names of potential instructors,” said Lucille Salerno, director of the institute. “She knew I always recruit.”
Harter’s initiative is part of the reason Salerno recently asked her to be on the advisory board at Osher. She was already doing part of the work without being asked, Salerno said.
“She does something completely and very quickly gets to the heart of things,” Salerno said. “She cuts to the chase.”
Harter grew up in Ohio, in the country between Akron and Canton.
At the time, she says, Canton was about the size of Columbia, which she describes as small but “a place where you could go to town and not see people you knew.” She lived on a lake and didn’t go into town much other than for attending a private all-girls school, where she first joined several clubs and began her life of community involvement. After graduation, she left Ohio to attend Briarcliffe College, another all-girls school.
“I had a lot of time to myself as a child, I guess you would say,” Harter said. “I really hit my stride when I went to college outside of New York City.”
While in college, she volunteered at a hospital, got involved in campus organizations and was the head of the synchronized swimming team. After graduating from the two-year school, she moved back to Ohio to attend Lake Erie College, another women’s college.
Phil Harter was attending a men’s college more than an hour away at the time. The couple met and later married in 1964. They moved around while Phil attended the University of Rochester and University of Michigan earning his master’s and law degrees. After his graduation from law school, their daughter, Lexa, was born.
The family moved one month later to Alexandria, Va., outside Washington, D.C. Harter soon decided the suburb was not for her.
“Everyone was older than we were,” Harter said.
Although she had a 6-month-old daughter to care for, Harter says she got bored, so she took in a short-term foster child and afterward moved the family closer to the center of Washington.
Over the next 30 years, Harter volunteered and worked with the elderly, young children, students, parents and ill patients. She founded at least five organizations, sat on eight boards and volunteered at several nursing homes, nursery schools and women’s groups. They also bought property in Vermont. Phil’s teaching assignments took the family on extended stays in Paris, Berlin and Cape Town, South Africa.
“Each passage of life, I have made choices and gone down roads which have led me to very interesting places with interesting people doing things I never had dreamed I would do,” Harter said.
Harter had multiple paying jobs through that time, including conference planner and teacher, consultant and consumer affairs manager responsible for addressing the problems and concerns of 6,500 students in 42 countries yearly.
“The culmination of my last paid job brought together all the skills I developed,” Harter said. “It was nonprofit so they didn’t have a paid staff for me. In life I’ve always said, I won’t be stopped, so I took volunteers. I had 108 volunteers.”
When Harter moved from Washington to Columbia, it was not just a move but more of an expansion.
“I just added another wonderful thing to my life,” Harter said. “It’s a matter of organizing. I set up clothes for each place and have activities and friends in each.”
They still own the apartment in Washington and visit three or four times a year. Harter still serves on the board of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, which helps families and communities solve major life problems.
Harter also stays involved in Vermont, where she and Phil continue to go each summer for his teaching stint. There she helped found and continues to work with the nonprofit organization Have Justice Will Travel, which is dedicated to helping women escape abusive situations.
“I’m blessed to be able to live in the time of the Internet,” Harter said. “It would be so hard to be so involved in each place.”
Harter’s husband shares her busy life. As one of the nation’s leading figures in mediation and dispute resolution, he helped write two bills that went through Congress.
Despite the couple’s high level of involvement, they both prefer to play a supporting role in civic affairs.
“I’d rather be a bridesmaid than a bride,” Harter said.