The Harris What?!

Mr. or Mrs. Harris, where art thou?

Harris the Cat

Eleanor Briggs’ beloved cat, Harris. Eleanor said she felt he “represented a certain wildness, humor, savvy and strong instinct, all elements needed for a successful environmental education center.”

In truth, we were incorporated in 1970 as the Harris Foundation and named after founder Eleanor Brigg’s beloved cat at the time. As I recall, “Harris” was a stray cat Eleanor had found in an abandoned brownstone in New York City and subsequently adopted. The name stems from his coat, which resembled Harris Tweed. And so, in roundabout terms, we were named for an island off the coast of Scotland!

What’s in a Name?

In the early years, while I was still working for NH Audubon and living at Willard Pond, Cecil Lyon was volunteering as Director. Quoting Cecil, in an early issue of the Harris Hearsay:

Not long after I retired from the foreign service, Eleanor asked me to be a director for the Harris Foundation. I was actually flattered and pleased. However, when I realized that she meant THE director, I felt slightly stunned and totally inadequate.

Actually, Cecil did a fine job of getting the Harris ship underway. One way he did so was to bring in experts in their fields to speak on behalf of the Harris Foundation. The most notable of these was Dr. Margaret Mead, in the Spring of 1974. Here’s another quote from Cecil in the Harris Hearsay:

I had considerable difficulty tracking her down, but eventually did so by telephone in New York. Her schedule was so full that it was about a year before she could fit us in. When she did, she arrived clutching a shepherd’s long crook, rather like an ancient prophet. Eleanor met her at the airport and escorted her to our house. We were having a pre-luncheon sherry in the warm spring when [Dr.] Mead says, ‘I don’t know who arranged this lecture. My secretary, I suppose. However, you are a foundation. Foundations give away money. I know, I have one. So I’ll have to charge you.’

At this point, Eleanor, knowing that Dr. Mead’s customary fee was in the thousands, turned pale. I knew our annual budget was less than such a fee and felt my heart miss a few beats. I explained that we were a small foundation, just starting out, and didn’t have much money, and you said as you were in Hancock, you wouldn’t charge us anything. This I thought at the time because Dr. Mead’s daughter had a house in Hancock. After a long agonizing pause, Dr. Mead said, ‘Oh, did I? Then I won’t.”

I was among the invited guests at this reception and heard that exchange. So when I was hired the following fall, one of the first things I suggested to the board was a name change! But change to what?

“Environmental Education” was a buzzword back then, but the word “environmental” was being greatly overused. I mentioned at least one example — an advertisement for a household cleaner, great for “environmental surfaces.” Without much further lobbying, everyone agreed on the “Harris Center for Conservation Education.” And though it took a generation for Harris “Foundation” to fade into the past, the new name stuck!

Getting it Right

A running list, kept by Meade, of all the erroneous names people used for the Harris Center.

A running list, kept by Meade and tucked away for years in a desk drawer, of all the erroneous names people used for the Harris Center.

An afternote: For the rest of the century, I kept a running list of all the erroneous names we were given in correspondence. This list is long, but here are an illustrative few — from “close” to “not even close”!

• The Harris Center for Nature Conservation
• The Harris Center for Conservation Ethic
The Harris Center for Conversation Education
• The Harris Center for Continuing Education
• The Harris Center for King’s Highway
• The Harris Center for Conservative Education
• The Harris Center for Construction Education
• The Harris Education and Treatment Center

Meade Cadot