Remembering Bob Harmon

Professor Emeritus Bob Harmon devoted his life to SU and was adored by students and colleagues alike.

Bob HarmonUpdate – Jan. 31, 2023: Bob Harmon's obituary

Update – Jan. 30, 2023: Following is an extended version of the eulogy Chris Harmon delivered today at the funeral of his father Professor Emeritus Charles Robert (Bob) Harmon at the Chapel of St. Ignatius. Visit Remembering Bob Harmon for the announcement shared with campus on Jan. 26.

The passing of Charles Robert Harmon on January 22nd was a quiet event but one of great significance. Virginia, Jeannie, David, Teri and I have all had the experience of being somewhere unusual in America, or overseas, and being surprised to meet yet another student or friend of Bob Harmon. Beyond the family, and beyond the thousands of the Seattle University community, there are hundreds more he touched. The family would like to say “Bless you for all you did to make his world so wide and so good.”

Bob always made you think he felt privileged to have your company. And… I think you’ll agree….he also earned your friendship with his merits. It was an astonishingly rich collection of attributes. I shared six decades without a feeling of exploring all the virtues or all the knowledge of this man—not the half.

One day, a few Harmons were together just after the J. Paul Getty Museum opened a building, outside Los Angeles, a magnificent villa on Pacific Coast Highway. We were admiring Roman heads, Greek statues, stone arches like those Dad and Mom had shown us kids in living room slide shows on East Galer Street in Seattle. Our little party wandered and gradually separated, and after a while I moved into a room with a few European paintings—including one brand new Getty acquisition. My father was already there; he was standing before an oil, “Man With A Hoe” by Jean-Francois Millet. A rural scene in France, about 1860: an exhausted farmer, who has been hoeing in a field of dirt, thistles and stones. Apparently when this painting was shown in Paris it scandalized the bourgeoisie; they did not want to see the harshness of a peasant’s laboring life.

As I walked over to my father he began, very quietly, speaking lines the Oregonian poet Edwin Markham had written after seeing this same painting:

“Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world.
Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?

Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?
Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?”


“O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
Is this the handiwork you give to God,
This monstrous thing distorted and soul-quencht?
How will you ever straighten up this shape;
Touch it again with immortality;
Give back the upward looking and the light;
Rebuild in it the music and the dream….”

Edwin Markham gives us a new view of a man with a hoe, and, for me that day, a new facet of Charles Robert Harmon. Here was a little epiphany for any student brought to the right spot by luck. Dad knew the story of Millet’s disturbing painting, and responded with all the respect the painter would have wanted. He knew the Markham poem—it was one of “101 Famous Poems” between the blue covers of this little edition you may have seen at his home. Here for me was a glimpse of what it really means to offer a liberal education, another bright flash off the long glittering stream that was his teaching life.

That happened long ago and I’ve never told the story. As each of you knows, there are too many true stories just as valuable to be told today. Everyone who knew him well has seen many things, just as illuminating. Sometimes personal, maybe profound. Sometimes the flash was of wit -- my friends in college began writing down the one-liners from classes. They made a broadsheet of them, with a caricature of Bob Harmon; Cyndi, and Brad, and Karen—he kept your poster for decades.

Kids -- college kids -- would come into Bob’s company for reasons that were academic and then many stayed on because of his character. We were young; we didn’t know much. But when a person paid attention, if you watched at all, there was something there to understand about what it is to be a man. Girls, as often as boys, instinctively drew in closer. The brilliant gal from Montana who walked Seattle’s soggy streets in light boots and aspired to be a poet.  Another, a young man, from whom once or twice a year there would come a late-nite telephone call to our house; Dad would not turn them down—and in time that fellow published searing poems about Vietnam—called The Long War Dead.  Bob was sought out by more than one Seattle University student body president, because even they, sometimes, have trouble figuring it all out. He brought home the basketballer from LA streets who wasn’t sure what was coming for him beyond four years of good games. Bob listened. He had deep wells of kindness and of strength. And all these different sorts of good souls sensed that, if you watched Mr. Harmon there was often something to learn about what it is to be a man.

One of my earlier lessons came on a drizzly Seattle day—the professor would call that a redundancy—when I had been in front of a nice fire, at home. I was age 10 or 11. And the voice of the master of the house called me over to look out the window. “Why,” I wanted to know. There, slowly climbing the infamous Galer Street steep-walk, a woman, maybe in her thirties, was slowly making her way home, probably after a day at work, and carrying the world’s largest bags of groceries. “You should go help her up the hill,” said the man. This was disconcerting. I was dry—she was not. The groceries were all hers; we would never eat any. We’d never seen her before. And by the way, my dad wasn’t putting on HIS raincoat! Was his part in this plan tending the warm fire? He repeated quietly, ”You should go help her home—it’s the right thing to do.” When I got out there, the woman was baffled to see me. But we managed the groceries, and somewhere in that walk I figured out that it was intended for helping me, as much as the unknown woman. There was something there, for a mystified selfish boy, about what is needed to grow up.

A big part of Dad’s life was basketball with his faculty, student and family friends at SU gyms.  And there is another whole set of little lessons about what it might be to be a man that my brother and cousins and I learned in these pick up games on the courts. For me there are a pair of special bookends, a set of basketball-with-Bob moments that box in a thousand more hours of games in his company. At the left, on this shelf of my memories, is a game when I was 16, on an outdoor basketball court in a park in Belgium. Our teenage opponents were eager but they lost quickly. After we walked away I said something exuberant and cocky about our little victory, and I was met fast with a reproof. My father said I might consider that boys didn’t grow up playing hoops in Belgium. And I might not like the results so much if the game had been soccer. His words weren’t nasty—just wise and exact.

The other game--that right bookend of my basketball memories—was 30 years later in our university’s new gym —the Connolly—and by then he was old. It was nearly the reverse of the experience with our European pals. We vaguely knew the two young men playing against us from our neighborhood on Capitol Hill. They knew we were aged out of the game, and I imagined I saw contempt showing. This two-on-two went hot and heavy for a while, and then I stepped to the side and asked a quiet word of my Team Captain. Probably very inappropriately, I said the cocky kids must lose this one. I have forgotten Dad’s reply, or if he made one, but there was a look of understanding in his eye. We went to it and Professor Bob really schooled those kids, and we won, making a memory for a gym rat like me who could never make the real teams. But somewhere in that is meaning, in two ways: Even in late age, Bob Harmon had deep reserves—in many things. And the other: my old man always had my back. He never, ever failed his kids. There’s a lot there about what it means to be a man.

That was our last game together. He taught history to many of the Chieftains over the years—the real players—but even more treasured—friends for a lifetime—were his earliest crowd of pick-up ball teammates: Joe Betz, Brian Ducey, Clint Hattrup… I mentioned our mathematician friend Andre Yandl to him, just now, January 15th , and he smiled a little and said “He was a terrific passer.” A ball passer is the kind of fellow that helps people, and that was Bob’s sort of person. The day our guy turned 70 years old he was a visiting professor at Hillsdale College, and he went down to the gym and shot around. He loved the camaraderie and the sport of basketball without allowing himself hoop dreams. 

Sometimes he would halt our pick-up games – stop the action – to make some instructive point, or re-run the last play.  New people were surprised by the intervention.  But after all, this was Robert…and it is the master teacher that most people will remember.  In the classroom it was an understated style, with quality all the way through.   After a tour at St. Martin’s in Olympia, his home, he brought his abilities to Seattle University and served it for half a century. Many of those years were contemporaneous with Virginia’s own service – to Fr. McGoldrick, and at the Registrar’s Office. 

With each new quarter, the young in general studies waited, curious, in the 3rd and 4th and 5th rows across those long classrooms in Lemieux Hall, anticipating their first look at this representative of the History Department. A few weeks later, some of those would wait again, outside his office, in Xavier Hall, and later Marion Hall, to find out why the first exam had been inked over so harshly. There’s no forgetting my first “C” from Prof. Harmon, I can tell you. But a lot of those surprised undergrads became budding fans, and more focused. And some became history majors.

He tutored students in his office. He taught one or two from the basketball team the lineage of Roman emperors or English kings between free throws in the gym. He lectured for the ROTC. He gave a conceptual going-over to threes and twos standing in his kitchen while kneading dough for the next platter of Parker House rolls. “Sir Robert’s Open University” was always in session.

There was the Honors Program, begun by the creative, forceful. Tom O’Brien, S.J. Prof. Harmon gave decades to the Honors Program, and there’s a scholarship fund named for these two within the College of Arts and Sciences. Honors graduates start with names such as Ann Huetter (Johnson), Patricia Wand, Larry Brouse…and the line runs strong down thru Tim and Pat Brown from Capitol Hill. The worthy graduates are all out there now, in homes and offices all along life’s highways, and they are well. He taught a couple of generations, so then he got to teach a few of their children as well.

He offered a war and peace course, at Evergreen College, apart from classes at Seattle U.  In these, there might be a few Vietnam vets sitting near a few of the wide-eyed who knew little of war, or who wondered frankly why anyone would ever go to war. They all learned—about political purpose, just war theory, military strategy, and about evil, about the wreckage it leaves. They’d read a little of the anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen, and the rhyming story set in Flanders Fields by Canada’s soldier-poet of the Western Front, John McCrea. They’d learn about Dad’s anti-Nazi heroes such as Dietrich Bonheoffer, or the White Rose student cell. The Pattons and the Eisenhowers certainly came alive.

Private Harmon always praised the noncommissioned officers in the army he had known—for the instruction they gave, the moral force they had, and the lives they saved. Professor Harmon’s prides included those he taught in R. O. T. C. at Seattle University. A wish, mentioned several times in recent years, was to gift them a box of his books on war with the reminder that they are smart, but they must also read.

The Prof. was one to throw out old teaching notes in favor of a fresh breeze. There were always new themes, or a new course, or a special invited speaker. Some of his surprises came from outside: A low key, articulate officer talked through a remarkable 7 tours inside low intensity conflict in Northern Ireland. For years, Dad hosted Malcolm Miller, the Englishman with a magic lantern who showed you the whole world in the windows of Chartres Cathedral.  This Robert-and-Malcolm partnership filled a campus auditorium every year.

Dad would team-teach. He ran courses with his great friend, historian Al Mann, surely one of the best minds to grace Seattle University in the decades running up to 2000. Dad saw him at a distance on the mall one day and he said to me, “Ah, there goes Albertus Magnus,” in reference to the 13th c. Aristotelian. A few years ago he taught with his former student, Joe Guppy, who is a son of Seattle University in at least two ways. I recall the classroom in the Bannon building, jammed with graduate students and their professors. The new M.A. in Counseling and Psychology, Joseph, explained the theory of Emmanuel Levinas about “the other;” then the veteran of 1944/45 talked through what it could mean for him in understanding his war with German opponents of those days. He was glad, after the war, with how he came to see “the other” in the German population. At his youngest as a father, Bob had often refused to walk us boys back over his bloody ground; he would politely evade our questions. That changed, as many of you know; that changed after aging; he became voluble. So, Professor Guppy had one taut classroom as Private Harmon made a kind of controlled fall back through layers of thought and emotion to where he could see again his fears, and tell new students about them. I believe that may have been his last class taught at Seattle University. 

One or two of you may know if Bob often confessed, formally in the church—I don’t know. We all do know how very often he was at mass, and how humble he could be. And another prize among those poems in that little blue collection was “The Fool’s Prayer” by Edward Sill.  My cousin Rodney Harmon and some other Honors Program students once heard this recited at dusk at Bob and Gina’s cabin on Hood Canal.  The ten stanzas of Sill capture the deepest humility. I think my father loved them for their attention to two of his guides through this world: Christianity, about which he was firm; and humility—including the modesty he thought fitting for the life of the mind. Do you remember, how he would say, in his classrooms, “I don’t know, but I should.” Or, “Well, we’ll have to suspend judgment on that.”

It is hard, now, for us to not feel selfish. At such a time, it is easy to slide south, obsessing on what is lost. To say ‘there was nothing like him, and now the world seems dark to me.’ But if there’s anything we know of Charles Robert, it’s that he would not countenance too much regret for too long…. He never was morose; self pity was beneath him.  What good fortune we’ve had to know him. What a good reflection it is on you, that he wanted and kept your company! You’ve seen aspects or angles I was too young to understand. You’ve had your museum moments in one of a dozen Gina and Bob European tours of the 1950s through the

2000s. You heard that morning talk at “The Hearthstone” or at a university, by one of the only living “Monuments Men” of the Austrian salt caves of 1945. You kept going the bridge games, or the little coffee klatch of retired Seattle U. professors, which I got to see in action on a Saturday morning in 2017. You had that hour in formal tutorial, a paper conference, or just a coffee in the Chieftain, in which, suddenly, you understood something that had been bedeviling; a complicated thought line straightened; a pattern appeared; or a cause became visible.

What a priceless quality that is—the mentor who gives the time, and has the ability and the personality—to....let… “insight”....…another. For all who became life-long “general studies majors” under Professor Harmon we could give a twist to a phrase by one of his favorite historical figures, T. E. Lawrence, and say that for us, “Even if nine-tenths of the hours over our books may be difficult, or banal, the tenth is like the flash of the Kingfisher over the pool.”

In a gathering so broad as the Seattle University community, there are few limits to the wonderful moments had with this fine man. For all who knew him at length, those memories are layered down thickly for you, year upon year, like leaves of nature. Preserve them! And re-tell your stories.

How lucky you are.

How lucky the Harmons are to have their memories that smile through the rains of Seattle.                                                                                                                         

- Chris, kid 2 of 4

The following announcement was shared with the SU community on Jan. 26:

Professor Emeritus Charles Robert (Bob) Harmon, whose outsized impact on Seattle University spanned several decades, died Jan. 22 at the age of 97.

Bob began a lifelong relationship with SU when he enrolled as a student in the late 1940s. Graduating in 1950, he returned three years later to teach history. Over 40 years as a faculty member, Bob held a number of key positions with the university. He directed the evening school program and was a principal faculty member in the university’s Honors Program. Adored by students and colleagues alike, he was named the university’s Distinguished Teacher of the Year in 1969 and received a teaching award from the Alumni Association in 1993.

To the discipline of history Bob brought a distinctively personal, firsthand perspective. Serving as a rifleman in General George Patton’s Third Army, he participated in a number of pivotal moments during World War II, including the surrender of Weimar and liberation of a concentration camp. Through numerous lectures and in more intimate settings, Bob was always generous in sharing his personal stories, while artfully drawing upon history to help make sense of the issues of the day. He had a special affinity for the university’s ROTC officers and will be donating some of his books to the program.

Bob’s impact extended well beyond the classroom and in both formal capacities—such as serving as advisor to the Hawaiian Club and organizing trips to Europe—and more informally, Bob contributed mightily to the life of the university and always put SU’s students first.

After his official retirement from SU in 1993, Bob remained close to the university and committed to its ongoing success. He continued to teach (through 2013) and serve his alma mater. His intellect, while considerable, never kept him from relating to others in a down-to-earth way—his “shop talks,” in which he shared history lessons with Facilities colleagues in their breakroom over lunch, being one example.

Bob and his wife Virginia (Gina) met while students at Seattle U, and Gina would serve as assistant registrar for four decades. Their contributions have gone a long way in making SU the university that it is. Let us keep Gina and the Harmon family in our prayers.

A funeral will be celebrated at 10 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 30 at the Chapel of St. Ignatius.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023