Museum News

Paul and Sandra Harmon Named 2018 History Maker Honorees

March 19th, 2018

Paul and Sandra Harmon shake their heads when they’re referred to as a “power couple,” but that’s how many people in the community describe them. This reluctant “power couple” first met during their freshman year at the University of Dubuque in Iowa, marrying shortly after they graduated in 1964.

It’s fortunate that they met at Dubuque, since they grew up so very far apart. Paul is Illinois born and raised, having spent most of his childhood in Genoa. Living in the apartment above his parent’s restaurant, Paul was very much in the thick of things as a child. Some days you’d find him in the telephone office, helping to direct calls, while other days you might find him in the movie theater. Many days, he’d get even more adventurous. “My mother once said that, ‘Well, if ever couldn’t find you I would just go down to the pool hall and you’d be in there’,” Paul said, laughing. Even after his parents sold the restaurant, they remained a part of downtown Genoa after Paul’s father opened a hardware store, where Paul began to work when he was 14. “This was in the 1950s, and Christmas was not the elaborate thing it is today so you actually wrapped garbage cans and snow shovels for people to give as Christmas presents,” Paul recalled. “They still looked like garbage cans and snow shovels when they left the store!”

Sandra, however, was born in North Carolina. She and her mother moved to Iowa to be close to family during World War II, when her father decided to enlist despite working an exempt job. After the war ended they spent a short spell in North Carolina before the family ultimately moved to Iowa for the rest of Sandra’s childhood. Sandra’s parents planted the seeds of her love for theater by being deeply involved themselves. Her father was an actor and a playwright, and her mother often worked on plays behind the scenes. During the day her mother worked at the local hospital, where Sandra herself got a job in high school. “I still can’t believe this,” Sandra confessed. “I admitted patients! I worked there as a junior and senior in high school, and I don’t think they’d let me do that today.” After graduating high school, Paul and Sandra both majored in history at Dubuque. At the time, Dubuque was a very small school of about 800 students, and Paul and Sandra met in their very first week of classes. They got married in August 1964, the year they graduated college, and lived in Clinton, Iowa until moving to Urbana-Champaign so Paul could attend law school at the University of Illinois.

Paul actually received the job offer that would shape his career while he was still in law school. At the prompting of his academic advisor, Paul attended an on-campus interview with the Illinois Agricultural Association and ended up being offered a job in their law department. Happy to have a job lined up, the Harmons moved to Bloomington-Normal shortly after Paul finished school in 1968. This was just the beginning of a career as an attorney with the Illinois Agricultural Association--today the Illinois Farm Bureau--that spanned 39 years. When asked what being an attorney with a company like Illinois Farm Bureau involves, he explained that “It’s a whole gamut of things. I always liked the law department with the IAA because you weren’t pigeonholed into doing one thing.” Paul, after many years as a specialist in securities law, rose through the ranks until he became the administrative head of a legal department that had doubled in size since he first started working there. Paul officially retired from the Illinois Farm Bureau in 2008.

Sandra did not sit on her laurels after moving to Normal, either. Sandra earned her Master’s in history in 1970, and worked briefly for the Milner Library before spending a year teaching at University High School. It was at that time that Earl Reitan, who was then chairman of the History Department at Illinois State University,asked if she would develop a women’s history night course. “I had just read 2 books in women’s history,” Sandra said. “I had no background, and there really wasn’t much out there at that time in terms of scholarly research. I said yes and started that course, and I continued to teach that course basically the entire time I was at ISU.” After one school year at U-High, during which she began to teach night classes, she joined ISU’s History Department part-time. As she continued to teach and serve on the Women’s Studies Advisory Committee, it became clear that she would need to pursue a doctorate. “ISU was not given permission to do PhD programs, so they came up with their Doctor of Arts programs. They had one in [history], so I started taking classwork in that program. My professors allowed me to research women--whatever the topic was or the time period--so that really beefed up my background in women’s history,” Sandra explained. One of few who holds a doctorate in history from Illinois State University, she wrote her dissertation on colonial New England women (and won the Helen M. Cavanaugh Award for Best Dissertation for the Doctor of Arts Degree, as well).

Having earned her doctorate, Sandra found herself taking on more responsibilities within the University. Within the Women’s Studies department she filled many roles over the next 24 years, from acting as the interim director on multiple occasions to working as a student teacher supervisor. “One thing I’m really proud of – the first time I was acting Director of Women’s Studies, I started a Women’s Studies Symposium so students had a forum to present their research,’ Sandra said. “It’s still running now and it’s gotten bigger and better over the years. When I first started, there wasn’t a lot of academic research and there was a lot of complaining about ‘Oh, women’s studies—what do we need those for?’ We tried to point out to people that most of the studies were male studies.” Sandra also found herself deeply involved in the wider campus, as well. She worked with the Affirmative Action office, served on the University President’s Cabinet, and served multiple terms on the College of Arts and Sciences Chairs committee.

Yet, in addition to their successful careers, both Sandra and Paul found time to get deeply involved in their community. Another local couple, Carol and Earl Reitan, greatly influenced the Harmons’ public and community service. In fact, it was Carol who first got Paul involved with local politics in 1972, when she appointed him to the Normal Planning Commission within her first week in office. In 1976, Paul left the Planning Commission to join the Normal Town Council, to which he was elected for 2 full terms. “When I got elected to the Council in 1976, we had no money,” Paul explained.“What little bit of sales tax we had went to parks and recreation (it was dedicated tax and there wasn’t much of it); half the town was tax-exempt between the schools and the hospitals, so they weren’t generating any property tax, we were still running WWII vehicles in the public works department—in 1976! That year, the [new council members] all said ‘We need to work on economic development.’ My focus for most of those 17 years [in public office] was the financial integrity of the town.”

After two terms on council, he ran for and was elected as Mayor of Normal, serving from 1985-1993. “I was always interested in local government and with my employer, the HR department encouraged involvement in the local community, but you couldn’t run for state offices. That’s part of the reason my focus was on local government.” This focus certainly paid off; in many ways, Paul’s term as mayor shaped Normal as we know it today. Some highlights of his time as mayor include the establishment of the Metro Zone agreements with the City of Bloomington, the creation of the Historic Preservation Program, the acquisition of the Normal Theater, the development of the Constitution Trail, and the creation in 1990 of the “2015 Report,” which outlined a 25-year plan for the Town, including Uptown Normal.

Hearing of Paul and Sandra’s work, one might imagine they’d be too busy for other boards and commissions; one would be wrong. Carol Reitan—the same woman who appointed Paul to the Normal Planning Commission—approached Sandra in the mid-1980s about getting involved in a project she was developing called “Heartland Productions.” Today, it’s known as the Heartland Theatre Company, and Paul and Sandra have both been involved since its inception.

Sandra and Paul have been involved in almost too many community organizations to count.Sandra has served on the board of directors of the McLean County Historical Society, Senior Professionals of Illinois State University, ISU’s Friends of the Arts, the First Presbyterian Church of Normal, the Sister Cities Association, Illinois Shakespeare Society, League of Women Voters, and more. Additionally, she’s served on many committees, from fund raising committees for multiple local non-profits to campaign committees, has served as a guest curator at the McLean County Museum of History, and helped both the Town of Normal and the Wayman AME Church celebrate their 150th anniversaries (in 2015 and 1993, respectively).

Paul’s community service resume is equally impressive. He has served on the board of directors of the Bloomington-Normal Symphony Society (today the Illiois Symphony Orchestra), the Chamber of Commerce, the Normal Theater, the BroMenn Foundation, the Illinois Shakespeare Society, and the Illinois Prairie Community Foundation. Additionally, he served 17 years on the Bloomington-Normal Airport Authority, including 9 years as chairman. He has also served on many committees, from multiple committees for the First Presbyterian Church and the McLean County WWII Memorial Committee to the Theatre at Ewing Campaign Committee. Together, Paul and Sandra have established multiple endowments in the community: the Endowed Harmon Recruitment scholarship for the ISU History Department to recruit underrepresented groups, the Paul and Sandra Harmon Endowment for Shakespeare, and the Illinois Prairie Community Foundation Endowment for Arts and Culture.

In their free time, Paul and Sandra have been prolific travelers. They’ve visited every continent except Antarctica and all 50 states. “We first started travelling in the US,” Sandra said. Paul added, “We’d do things like drive to the uppermost part of Maine, just get as far north in Maine you can go, or go to the eastern most part of the country.” Their travels have taken them all over the world, from the Amazon to a 13-day raft trip through the Grand Canyon and even to what is now St. Petersburg, back when it was Leningrad. Today, Paul and Sandra Harmon remain very active in the community, although they travel as often as they can in their retirement.

Lauren Lacy