Rose Marie Harper lives, loves and does well

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Photos by Marie Thomas

At some point in our lives, each of us begins to think about our legacy: we wonder how people will remember us when we’re gone and whether or not we’ll have left the world a better place than we found it. If we’re diligent, we use these questions as a guide, making decisions, orchestrating events, and trying to live our lives with an eye toward the future. If we’re lucky, we get a chance to look back and catch a glimpse of that legacy, staring back at us in the faces and stories of all the people whose lives we’ve impacted along the way.

Rose Marie Harper is one of those fortunate and she doesn’t have to look far to see that she’s made an impact: in fact, because of her vision and efforts, thousands of children have found solace and shelter, and an equal number of senior citizens have enjoyed safe, happy, fulfilling retirements. Rose Marie and her husband, the late Dr. Byron Harper, Sr., were the driving forces behind Christian City, a faith-based organization and conglomerate of nine not-for-profit organizations in Union City, that is dedicated to the care and encouragement of children, the aged, and the infirm. The Harpers donated the first 50 acres of land on which was built The Christian City Home for Children, a refuge for abused, abandoned, or otherwise neglected children in 1965. Today, Christian City is a 500 acre campus including four subdivisions of patio homes for seniors who live independently; four apartment buildings for seniors on limited incomes; an assisted living facility; an Alzheimer’s facility; a skilled nursing and rehabilitation center; and The Children’s Village, which includes four cottages that each house eight children and a set of house parents. Currently, 32 children and 1,000 seniors call Christian City home.

Rose Marie at home in Union City

I meet Rose Marie at her home, a quaint cottage situated next to her son’s house — the very house in which she and Dr. Harper raised their five children. Further down the road, live her four other children, with their families — on a 165-acre stretch of land. Rose Marie sits in a white, wicker chair on her screened-in patio, her fingers gingerly turning the pages of a packet she photocopied just for me. Her brown hair is perfectly coiffed, and the soft-pink hue of the flowers on her sheer blouse perfectly accents the bold fuchsia blooms on the bush planted outside the screen. I’m sure it’s a coincidence, but the color coordination is remarkable. “I’m writing my autobiography for the kids,” she says, as she hands me a stapled packet of papers. “This is for you. It tells you all about my life.”

On the small table that sits between us are four books, one a book of poems and three others — a trilogy of historical fiction that recounts the adventures of Dr. Harper’s ancestors on their trek from Europe to America. “Those are for you. I want you to have them,” she tells me. I gather the photocopied stories and books onto my lap. I steal a glance at Rose Marie Harper — now 85 — a prominent Fayette County resident, political activist and trailblazer, philanthropist, visionary, mother of five, grandmother of twenty-six, and great-grandmother of nine. As I stare first at this woman and then at the stack of materials before me, I immediately sense that it would take many more volumes than those that lie on my lap to tell the full story of just how profoundly Rose Marie Harper has impacted the lives of so many.

In 1927, when Rose Marie Harper was born, people — and society at large — had very strict opinions about what women could do and be. But Rose Marie, whose father owned a grocery store and whose mother was a homemaker, had different opinions.

Dr. and Mrs. Byron Harper at their wedding in 1949.

“I loved speech and debate. I played the flute. I thought I’d be a schoolteacher. I certainly didn’t think I’d get married and have five children,” she says. But all that changed in 1948, when, as a student at Northwestern University in Illinois, Rose Marie met a strapping young Navy doctor named Byron Harper. The doctor, who was from Atlanta, was stationed at a naval air base in Illinois. Three to four times a week, he would drive the 60 miles from base to Evanston to see Rose Marie. Though Harper was smitten and Rose Marie was fond of him, it wasn’t a “given” that the two would get married; for starters, her mother thought that Harper, who was four years older than Rose Marie, was too old for her daughter. And as Rose Marie writes in her autobiography, “My father thought most Southerners made moonshine.”

But in the end, love prevailed, and Harper asked Rose Marie to marry him. He had been transferred to another base, so he mailed the engagement ring to Rose Marie’s mother to give to her on Christmas Eve. “She emptied all the sugar out of the canister, put the ring in it, and poured the sugar back on top. Sweet. That bespoke our marriage,” Rose Marie says, wistfully.

In 1949, the couple settled in Atlanta. Over the next few years, they had five children, three girls and two boys. Byron set up a practice in the West End, then East Point, and finally, in Fayette County. It was while the family was living in Southwest Atlanta that the couple received a request that would change the course of their lives, and with it, the lives of thousands of people down the line. The Harpers had met a couple through church who inquired about whether any churches in the area had a children’s cottage. “At that time in Georgia, there were lots of abandoned kids. The issue got a lot of publicity,” Rose Marie remembers. The Harpers weren’t sure whether there was such a home or not, but Dr. Harper had an idea. “He said, ‘Rosie and I have fifty acres. Let’s build it.’ The idea just caught fire,” she says. The Harpers donated their land and over the next several years, church members would gather at the couple’s home each week to lay the groundwork for what would ultimately become Christian City. More than a dozen couples from the Harpers’ church underwrote the facility, and the Harpers began to lobby financial supporters for their vision: Dr. Harper appealed to other doctors and Rose Marie petitioned civic groups and other organizations. “Christian City got a reputation,” she says. “Kids came through the Department of Family Services, and more and more churches became interested in it.” Eventually, organizers also decided to build Sparks Manor, an assisted living facility.

Rose Marie breaking ground in Christian City.

While the Harpers were building the foundation for Christian City, a neighbor approached them about buying land in Fayette County. “At the time, Fayette County sounded like something in another state,” Rose Marie recalls. Still, every Saturday, the family would pack a lunch and make the drive from Atlanta to Fayette County to “see the land.” Over the next several years, the Harpers hired contractors to plant 10,000 loblolly pines. They also built a six-acre lake and cut roads through the trees. The family built their home on a spot of the land in 1971.

But even with these improvements, the land surrounding the Harpers’ home was still largely undeveloped; street signs and street lights were few and far between. That was dangerous, especially at the railroad crossing near Sandy Creek Road, about a mile and a half away from the Harpers’ home. Traffic at the intersection was heavy, and trying to cross the tracks without being hit was a gamble. Rose Marie’s brother, who was visiting from out of town, commented on the danger and suggested his sister do something about it. “He said, ‘Sis, why don’t you get the county to put up an electric signal at the crossing? ’” So she began lobbying county officials, who referred her to the rail line company. Officials there repeatedly passed the buck, but Rose Marie pressed harder and eventually met with rail line executives. Months later, Rose Marie saw a group of about ten crewmen installing an electric signal at the crossing. Finally, all of her efforts had paid off. “One contractor said, ‘Are you the woman who lobbied to have this electric signal put in? We came all the way from Florida just for this job,” Rose Marie recalls. “My pursuit had done some good. I was hooked.”

Rose Marie and Byron.

She was so hooked, in fact, that she decided to run for Fayette County Commissioner in 1975. She was defeated, but undaunted, and in 1979, she ran again. This time, she won — and she made history. “I ran as a Republican, which was a ‘no-no,’ [but] I assured them their grandfathers would not turn over in their graves if they voted Republican,” she says. Voters liked her message and her spunk, and elected Rose Marie the first woman and first Republican to ever serve on the Fayette County Commission. A proponent for homeowners’ rights, Rose Marie worked tirelessly to create policies that would benefit landowners, a stance that made her unpopular with many in the community. After serving one four-year term, she was defeated for a second term.

Never one to stay idle, Rose Marie went to work as Office Manager in her husband’s medical practice, and when she wasn’t working, she was writing…and writing, and writing. Over the next ten years, Harper wrote five books; three of those chronicled Dr. Harper’s ancestors’ adventures in emigrating from Europe to America. “I created all kinds of fantasies about those people,” Rose Marie says. All the while, her husband supported her efforts. “He was an encourager. He was a dreamer. He always said, ‘Dream big. Give God the credit.’ ”

And while the couple was dreaming, they were also doing: both were always on the front lines at Christian City, raising money, raising awareness, welcoming and encouraging the people who came to call it the “new community home.”

Peggi Caldwell sits on the Christian City Board of Trustees. Caldwell came to live at Christian City — at “The Home for Children,” as it was called then — at age 11, after spending years being shuffled between foster homes and her uncle’s care. She says she always saw Rose Marie on the campus, and she was always smiling. That joy was, and still is, reflected by those who live and work at Christian City. Caldwell remembers the first time she met her house mother. “She gave me the biggest hug and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh. I can’t breathe! ” And that eagerness to welcome her into their family was just part of what Caldwell experienced living at Christian City. “I never had what they call a ‘family dynamic,’ where you see that a family can work together and love each other through thick and thin. I was a straight-A student, but I never knew I was smart until they told me I was,” she says. Today, Caldwell manages a string of assisted living centers for another organization. She also keeps in touch with her house parents and the four other women who grew up with her at The Children’s Village. “A child just wants to be loved, and that was given out freely there. I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for people who helped me.”

 

Sitting around the table with friends during the early organizational days of Christian City.

And those people were brought together by the planning, diligence, and vision of Dr. Byron and Rose Marie Harper. Today, 32 children call The Children’s Village Home, and more than 1,000 seniors live on the campus. Dr. Harper passed away in 2008, the same year construction on The Children’s Village, which replaced The Children’s Home, was completed. In July 2012, the Welcome Center was renamed the Dr. Byron and Rose Marie Harper Welcome Center. Christian City staff and volunteers also dedicated a fountain to the couple; it features three monolithic stones that symbolize the Harpers’ vision for Christian City, their commitment to make it a reality, and their faithfulness to sustain it for what is now nearly 50 years.

Bob Crutchfield is President and CEO of Christian City, where he oversees 500 employees and more than 200 volunteers. “I love Rose Marie Harper and am privileged to call her my friend,” he says. “She knows how to get things done, how to articulate vision and mission and how to inspire people to do more than they thought they could.”

Rose Marie with her family in July 2012 when the Welcome Center was renamed the Dr. Byron and Rose Marie Harper Welcome Center.

And she leads by example. In addition to serving on the Christian City Board of Trustees, Rose Marie spends time with her family: her son Byron, a doctor; Richard, a campus minister and founder of the Georgia Tech Christian Campus Fellowship; Holly, a nurse; Debby, a nurse; and Lindy, a physical education teacher. She continues to write and is currently working on her autobiography. She’s also started a “Granny Gang” of widows who meet once a week for lunch or dinner. Ever the encourager, like her late husband, Rose Marie says, “I strive to influence my family, from four months old to the thirties, to enjoy every moment of every day to the fullest. Optimism, and the belief that everything works together for good for those who trust in the Lord and His guidance, are two of my hallmarks. I didn’t build Christian City. God did. To God be the glory for the things He has done.”

But even though Rose Marie defers credit for the wonderful effect she’s had on thousands of lives over the years, Crutchfield says her impact cannot be underestimated. “Children come to Christian City to break away from abuse, abandonment, and neglect, to escape the violence that has often been a part of their lives. Our older adults come to live their lives with peace of mind and to rest assured that someone will be there for them when their independence begins to slip away, their health fails, or they must face the most important portion of their existence — the end of it on this earth. With both those who are beginning their life and those who are moving toward their final years, Christian City offers a community of faith, love, and hope. I am blessed to be a part of it.”

And so, too, are the thousands of other people who’ve benefited over the years from Rose Marie’s vision and generosity. That is her legacy, and it’s imprinted in the smiles of those who’ve had the good fortune to know her.

Rose Marie and Dr. Harper in 2005 at the Christian City 40th Anniversary Gala.

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