Catherine Harker was born to a pioneer family in Portland, Ore., on March 2, 1865. She was the daughter of James Bartlett Harker and Sarah Ellen Polk. The family was of English, Scotch and Dutch ancestry. Catherine, known as “Cassy” to family and friends, was the oldest of three sisters. Middle sister Sara became Catherine’s right-hand woman at Miss Harker’s School for Girls. Sadly, Caroline, the youngest, became despondent while in her early twenties and ended her own life.
Young Catherine attended Portland Oregon High School. Before she went to Palo Alto to open her school in 1903, she was a substitute at Portland High School, had private students, taught at Curtner Seminary in California (1895-1898) and at Mills College in Oakland, California (1890-1893; 1898-1901).
Catherine opened her school for girls in 1903. It began on the corners of Kingsley and Bryant in the vacated Castilleja Hall. Eighty students were enrolled and seven graduated the first year. In 1907, the school moved to a six-plus acre spot in an old vineyard. Cows, chickens, potato patches and vegetable gardens could be seen from the classrooms. Board and tuition in 1903 was $500; the day school cost was between $50 to $90.
Headmistress Harker, who taught Latin and mathematics in addition to her administrative duties, has been described in a variety of sources as a dignified woman with a strong sense of the importance of academics, who often laced her lessons with humor.
The 1952 edition of the Miss Harker’s School Yearbook, “The Echo,” wrote, “Miss Catherine Harker… was not only a meticulous scholar whose daily lessons were carefully organized in neatly penciled notes, but she was a strongly attractive teacher, usually dressed in the dignity of white shirtwaists and long black skirts of her day, who re-assured her students with a contagiously delightful sense of humor.” The October 1952 edition of local magazine Tall Tree said, “Her faculty of combining humor and scholarliness made her courses a delightful experience.”
The motto of Miss Harker’s School for Girls was non ministrari, sed ministrare: “Not to be served, but to serve.” In 1923, the City of Palo Alto changed its street signs to reflect the school’s presence. Katherine and Central became Melville and Harker, respectively.
Catherine Harker passed away Dec. 12, 1938 at the age of 73 after suffering a heart attack while on the school grounds.
—Compiled by the Harker History Committee