Thursday, April 26, 2018
News Roundup

Patricia Harris, 'Times' reporter in 1920s, dies at 101

ST. PETERSBURG — In another election year, a young St. Petersburg Times reporter led off the society page with a rundown of which organizations were meeting and how voters could get to the polls — where they could choose between Herbert Hoover and Al Smith.

"Society will follow dull routine this week," 18-year-old Patricia Brock began on Nov. 4, 1928, "as matrons and leaders turn from teas, luncheons and balls to participate in the election Tuesday."

Further down, the section touted a popular riding stable in Pinellas Park, listed the weekly meetings of more than 40 social organizations, and noted the decline of corsets as a part of bridal wear.

In 1929, the young reporter married an up-and-coming Times editor, Tom C. Harris. Years later she would leave the paper and devote herself to motherhood. Mrs. Harris could paint a bicycle or a room, rewire a lamp or cover furniture. She checked her children's homework, but could also take them on spontaneous trips to Northern states or even Mexico.

Mrs. Harris never lost that sense of independence, or her belief that after hard work comes enjoyment.

"She taught us that if you have some task, to do the hard thing first," said Peggy Harris, her daughter.

Mrs. Harris was born in Washington, D.C., in 1910. A fond coincidence from childhood: Her morning schedule seemed to overlap with that of President Woodrow Wilson, whom she glimpsed in traffic many times on her way to elementary school.

At 9, her father, Charles Brock, an administrator in the Bureau of Insular Affairs, a division of the War Department, decided to jettison that lifestyle for farming. He joined his pioneer family in Orange County. A few years later he changed his mind and took the family to St. Petersburg.

Mrs. Harris, who joined the Times in 1928 after graduating from St. Petersburg High, contributed to a busy "woman's page."

She met Tom Harris, whose history at the paper was already legendary. When no reporters were available to cover a double murder, Harris, then a 16-year-old copyboy, stepped up.

He was promoted to police reporter, then city editor while still in high school. Her husband became managing editor, then executive editor, often putting in 12-hour days.

"Daddy certainly did work seven days a week," said Harris, 77, "but he was always here for the big events."

The couple managed to travel together to Cuba and Central and South America, where Tom Harris had covered earthquakes and political upheavals.

Meanwhile, her civic activities multiplied. She was active in the PTA, the Woman's Service League, the March of Dimes, the St. Petersburg Museum of History, First Presbyterian Church and the Florida Orchestra.

She was particularly proud of her work with the Beta Woman's Club, where she helped establish the precursor to the current Christmas Toy Shop. The Doll Project, as it was initially known, acquired and carefully sewed clothes for up to 200 dolls a year, which were given to children of poor families. "These were beautiful, substantial dolls," said daughter Tricia Burgin, Peggy's twin sister. "There were no Barbies back then."

Mrs. Harris also knew how to relax. She took her daughters to the beach when you could drive your car onto the sand and introduced them to art and music.

"She saw the birth of culture in this town when there was no art and no orchestra," Burgin said.

Tom Harris spent 45 years at the Times, retiring in 1968. He died in 1985.

Mrs. Harris continued to live at home, where she was cared for by Peggy Harris. She remained sharp, and "enjoyed every minute she had with us," Harris said.

Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama sent their best wishes to her 100th birthday celebration in 2010.

Mrs. Harris died Jan. 12, at St. Anthony's Hospital. She was 101.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.

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