GREENVILLE — Pearlie Harris is the daughter of a country preacher who was educated in a one-room schoolhouse for black children in Saluda, N.C.
She grew up to become the chairman of the board of St. Francis Hospital System; the first woman to ever hold that office. She is also a retired teacher with a master’s degree from a prestigious university and is a pillar of the Roman Catholic Church.
Although Harris has traveled a long way over the decades, she remains a humble and devout woman, according to people who know her.
“Pearlie serves willingly, content to perform the lowliest tasks as well as the most visible, most difficult ones. She is not afraid to become involved,” said Pat Webb, recording secretary of the St. Mary Women’s Club, which elected Harris as its Woman of the Year for 2009.
While she was a young teacher in Beaufort, Harris met and married a Parris Island Marine from Houston who was a Catholic.
By 1962, the couple had moved to Greenville, where she was eventually chosen as one of the first non-white teachers to work in the county’s newly integrated schools.
They began worshipping at St. Mary Church. By 1968, she was a choir member and a fixture in the life of the parish.
“The pastor, Father (Ronald) Anderson, asked me what I wanted from the church, and I told him I wanted to receive Communion. So, I took lessons from him and the deacon and converted,” Harris said. “Catholics have so much faith in God and in Mary. It’s the one true faith; it has everything you need.”
She was commissioned as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and became a lector. She was the historian and then president of the ladies guild, and a member of Catholic Fellowship and the PTA at St. Mary School. Both her sons attended the parochial school.
For all her accomplishments at the parish, however, she has, in the eyes of her pastor, an even greater role to play by the way she lives her life.
“Pearlie Harris is first, last and always a faithful disciple of the Lord Jesus,” said Father Jay Scott Newman. “With extraordinary grace, Pearlie embodies Christ’s law of love in the two-fold commandment to love God and neighbor, and she is an inspiration to everyone.”
In 1987, her husband James, then a retired 52-year-old Master Gunnery Sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, died of cancer. She said it was caused by exposure to the exfoliant Agent Orange during two combat tours in Vietnam. She buried him with full honors in Arlington National Cemetery and never remarried, saying that James had spoiled her for anyone else.
Instead, she dug into her community work. Her resume of nonprofit board memberships and volunteer positions numbers more than a dozen.
Harris will reminisce about playing with Carl Sandberg’s daughters as a child, singing in the Billy Graham Crusades from 1954 to 1957, graduating from Barber-Scotia College in 1957 and then earning a masters in education from Furman University years later. She also recalls helping her father feed the chain gang when they passed by their home and becoming the woman of the house at age 10 when her mother fell ill. Still, she looks forward as often as she can.
“It was a hard life, but a good life. Why complain? Besides, I absolutely think that the Catholic Church is coming back. She is starting to attract smart young people again. I look forward to the future,” she said.
Father Newman believes Harris has something to do with that bright future herself.
“Put most simply, knowing Pearlie Harris makes it easier to believe and live the Gospel,” he said.