The following article by Enid Davis, lower school librarian, appeared in the January 2003 edition of Harker News.
For a symbolic reason, I have left Catherine Harker’s profile last in the series of our school’s founders. The school has gone through many name changes in its 110 years, but the “Harker” as in Miss Harker’s School for Girls still stands.
Who was Catherine Harker? What was her character? Is she someone whose values we can cherish as much as we do her name?
Catherine was born to a pioneer family in Portland, Oregon, 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 came 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 sighted 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 person with three outstanding traits: humor, scholarship and dignity. Two quotes from our archive sources follow:
“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.” —(Miss Harker’s School,”The Echo.” School yearbook, 1952.)
“Her faculty of combining humor and scholarliness made her courses a delightful experience.” —(Tall Tree, Vol. 1, No. 4. October, 1952).
The motto of Miss Harker’s School for Girls was “Not to be served, but to serve – Non ministrai, sed ministare.”
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.
Still on a symbolic hunt for meaning behind the word “Harker” (English majors unite!), I checked out the library’s Oxford English Dictionary. One of the meanings of the word “hark,” is “to hear with active attention.” A “harker,” is, of course, a listener.
So hark! Our school name comes to us from an intelligent, scholarly, person with a good sense of humor, whose selected school motto was to serve others. She dedicated her life to education. Catherine died of a heart attack on the school grounds on December 12, 1938, but her name certainly lives on.