Civic-minded couple leaving Columbia after seven years

Wednesday, May 12, 2010 | 5:08 p.m. CDT; updated 5:10 p.m. CST, Friday, February 25, 2011

COLUMBIA — Walking through Phil and Nancy Harter’s home is like walking through an art deco museum of past owners, local artists and renovators complete with an animated greeting from Panache, the Briard French sheepdog.

“Every moment I’ve been in this house I’ve been happy,” Nancy Harter said.

Farewell party

A going-away party Thursday for Nancy Harter will be open to all women.

When: 5:30 to 8 p.m., Thursday

Where: Riechmann Pavilion, Stephens Lake Park

Cost: Bring an appetizer, bottle of wine or beverage to share

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After seven years in Columbia, the Harters will soon leave behind their 1929 Art Deco home on Glenwood Avenue. They will be dividing their time between their Washington, D.C., home of 40 years and their Vermont farm of 20 years. They never planned to stay long in Missouri but have devoted themselves to Columbia's political and academic scenes.

Their civic commitments are natural extensions of their lives in other states. Nancy Harter attended girls' schools and colleges and became passionate about women's issues. When she came to Missouri, she wanted to meet many women and connect with them politically. In 2004, she met former state Rep. Vicki Riback-Wilson, and they formed Progressive Women of Mid-Missouri with 16 politically active women. At the first meeting, 175 women packed the Harters’ home.

“That was such an interesting and seminal event because I stood in this room and I watched them say, 'I didn’t know she was progressive,’” Harter said about the women in attendance. “Women didn’t talk about politics. They had their politics, but it wasn’t a subject that was brought up regularly.”

Progressive Women of Mid-Missouri works to improve the status of women in Columbia as well as throughout the state while creating a network of women educated in government and politics. Their efforts are in hopes of increasing the number of women elected to public office. The group, which will now be headed by Sarah Catlin-Dupuy, Johanna Cox-Littrell and Helen Anthony, has close to 500 members and a larger e-mail listserv.

Catlin-Dupuy joined two years ago and has been able to experience Harter’s passion for getting more women involved in politics.

“Now that I’ve known her, something that impressed me was that she owns these homes on the East Coast," Catlin-Dupuy said. "Why on earth would she spend so much time on local politics?”

Both Phil Harter and Catlin-Dupuy agreed: It’s Nancy’s nature.

Her degrees are in child development, human development and education. Her last position before moving to Columbia was as ombudsman of an international exchange program that handled 6,500 students in 42 countries. She has served on the Majority Council of Emily’s List, a national women’s organization working to get more Democratic women elected to office.

Harter hopes to someday see women occupying half of the seats in Congress. Currently, women hold less than 20 percent of the seats in the House and Senate.

While in Columbia she started two other e-mail listservs: “Columbia Citizens,” with Tracy Wilson Kleekamp, which provides an opportunity for  Columbia residents to share their thoughts about their community; and "Old Southwest and Broadway" with Mike Martin, created for neighbors who want to communicate and share ideas and concerns about services such as babysitters and repair people.

Nancy Harter retired before moving to Columbia with her husband, Phil, who has been the Earl F. Nelson Professor of Law at MU. Before that, he spent 20 years as a mediator in government policy matters. His career has included years of writing federal legislation, practicing at a Washington law firm and serving as a chairman for the American Bar Association, but he came to Columbia to focus on teaching and writing.

He will teach summer and fall classes at Vermont Law School while staying at their farm in Vermont. The Harters will live at their Vermont home during summer and fall months and at their home in Washington during winter and spring months.

In 2007, Phil Harter resigned as chairman of MU’s standing committee on research responsibility after MU accused three scientists of research misconduct. He felt the university was being inappropriately and illegally secretive. Now, Phil Harter finds himself frustrated by a debate surrounding the Law School's recent drop in U.S. News & World Report rankings and wishes he could do something about it.

"I want to urge students to follow their ambitions and dreams," he said.

Although he came from a family of lawyers and judges, Phil Harter never guessed he would follow that route. He has degrees in mathematics and physics with an advanced degree in mathematics. He was appalled at the idea of going into law until the summer of 1963 when he was on a fellowship at Sewanee, the University of the South.

The civil rights movement was in full swing, and, with an African-American in his program, some daily activities became dangerous.

“It was a major summer,” he said “It was quite a radical experience for me. We were getting guns pulled on us.”

After his experience in the South, Phil Harter realized law might be the right path for him to make a difference.

“It got me thinking, whoa, there are things to be done out there,” he said. “The civil rights era was a powerful time to go into law as a means of social change.”

Phil and Nancy met while they were attending college more than an hour away from each other in Ohio. They married in 1964 and had a daughter, Alexa, after Phil graduated from law school at the University of Michigan. A physicist at Georgia Tech University, Alexa and her husband, Reinaldo Roman, have two children.

As they leave Columbia, the Harters, each 68, hope to see their efforts continued — keeping open communication within the university and the community and supporting women in local government. And they plan to visit.

Nancy Harter will stay in Columbia until the house sells. Phil Harter leaves Tuesday to start his 20th year teaching summer sessions at Vermont Law School.


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