Royal Palm Yacht & Country Club resident Edythe Harrison
has had a full life in both the cultural and political realms. She
remains active in retirement, on the local and the national levels. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Edythe Harrison has been organizing people around issues and initiatives most of her life, beginning at age 21. That was the year she moved from her hometown of Detroit, Mich., to her new husband’s native Virginia, and was denied a voter registration card by the City Treasurer’s office in Norfolk.
“They didn’t want a Yankee, and a woman, to vote,” Harrison says. “It was during Virginia’s resistance to desegregation and they used voter suppression as a way to perpetuate their power. So they didn’t want a liberal woman voting! That’s what propelled me to get involved in politics to open up the voting process for all people.”
In the late 1950s, she ran for a seat on Norfolk’s Democratic Party Committee.
“This was revolutionary,” Harrison says. “Nobody had ever run for a committee seat before. It was all ward politics.” She put her children in a wagon and pulled them through her precinct, campaigning at every house. She put up campaign posters. The sheriff, who claimed they were illegal, removed them. So she put up 500 more.
On Election Day, Harrison says, the conservative political machine stuffed the ballot box against her. She lost by 33 votes, but was not deterred.
“I was a Detroiter! Detroit is a can-do town. Unlike in the old South, nobody in Detroit cared about your lineage. They just wanted to know ‘what can you do?’ I had ideas, and I wasn’t afraid to propose new ideas.”
Harrison fought such things as the poll tax and unfair legislative districting practices. Later on, she spearheaded a drive to form a world-class opera company in Norfolk — a place not particularly known for its cultural arts. Once the Virginia Opera was established and began drawing widespread critical praise, Harrison became a folk hero in the community, garnering support from people who had previously disagreed with her political positions.
“My husband said, ‘why don’t you run for the state Legislature on the Opera Ticket?’ He was making a joke. But I said, I think that’s a good idea.”
Harrison was elected in 1979 and later ran for the U.S. Senate. Her can-do attitude and dedication to social, economic and political equality for all have prompted her to continue serving and organizing, even to this day.
At age 77, she serves on the Advisory Board of Florida Atlantic University’s Women’s Studies program and on the Leadership Council of the Cleveland Clinic in Weston. And lately she’s become very involved in the re-election campaign of a fellow community organizer: President Barack Obama.
— Paula Detwiller
Q. Where did you grow up and go to school?
A. I grew up in Detroit, Mich. I attended Stephens College in Columbia, Mo.; Finch College in New York City; and Wayne State University in Detroit.
Q. What are some highlights of your life?
A. After studying theater and TV production in college, I moved with my husband to Norfolk, Va., and got a job as “Miss Edie” representing Streitman Crackers on WTAR-TV’s Hometown Hoedown show. I would get in my booth and say things like “Sheriff Bill, do you know that Townhouse Crackers are the only crackers that really split when you split them?” And of course they never did — I’d end up with a handful of crumbs. The show was so bad I can’t even tell you! But everyone watched it.
From there I became very involved in desegregation. This was 1954, and Virginia had adopted a policy of “massive resistance” to the Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education. They were closing schools rather than complying. I got involved in local politics and eventually served in the Virginia state Legislature, from 1979 to 1982. I ran for the U.S. Senate on the Democratic ticket in 1984, becoming the only woman from Virginia to win a party nomination for federal office. My opponent was Republican John Warner, who won re-election in the Reagan landslide of that year.
In my life, I’ve had the opportunity to make important changes and contributions through the political process, and have founded many organizations for the betterment of society. I was a founder of Planned Parenthood in Virginia, became a trustee of the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine (the first in-vitro fertilization center in the U.S.), and helped to create the Women’s Studies Department at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.
In 1974, I founded the Virginia Opera, headed by artistic director Peter Mark, which attracted media coverage from around the world. The Edythe and Stanley L. Harrison Opera House in Norfolk is a beautiful and marvelous structure named for my late husband and me. A couple of years ago I helped found the Lyric Opera in Virginia.
I am a former delegate to the United Nations and served on the first advisory board to the newly built John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. And I was very honored in 2010 to be chosen by the State Library of Virginia to receive the Outstanding Women in History Award.
Q. How did you choose to make your home in Boca Raton?
A. I have family here and wanted to settle here for the next “passage” in my life.
Q. What is your favorite part about living in Royal Palm Yacht & Country Club?
A. It’s a beautiful community, and accessible to everything that I need to make life easy.
Q. What do you consider your greatest accomplishment in life?
A. My three children and seven grandchildren.
Q. Tell us about your support of the Woman’s Studies program at FAU.
A. I am on the advisory board, whose mission is to raise funds for graduate student scholarships.
Q. If someone made a movie of your life, who would you like to play you and why?
A. Ingrid Bergman. She was my favorite actress. She possessed charm, character, and passion — all the things I believe are worthy attributes.
Q. What music do you listen to when you need inspiration? When you want to relax?
A. For inspiration, opera music, and for relaxation, Chopin.
Q. Do you have a favorite quote that inspires your decisions?
A. Be careful what you are like, because the older you get the more like yourself you become. (I am paraphrasing. I think that was Oscar Wilde, but I could be wrong.)
Q. Who or what makes you laugh?
A. Everything makes me laugh. That’s the best way to get through life. What else can we do when we are put on hold several times a day, only to finally talk to a rep from the phone company or some other instrument of driving people crazy, who then switches you to another department, and the phone is then disconnected and on and on? Laughter eases the knot in our stomachs and the throbbing in our brains.