The steady vision of a volunteer


Darlene Harris, now president of city council, helps clean up in Spring Hill in 2009. (Photo courtesy Audrey Glickman)

Friends and community members describe her as selfless, hardworking and dedicated to getting the job done, whether it takes a day or a year — or 10.

But Darlene Harris, who was elected city council president in January, will most likely shrug off the compliments and keep working.

“As I accomplish something I just move on to the next task,” said Harris. “If I see a job that needs done, I just do it.”

Observatory Hill, Inc. chair board Moses Carper has worked with Harris on many a community project, including setting up a visitor education center and getting flower beds at the entrance of Riverview Park.

“She’s a get-it-done person. Once you point her in a direction, she’s very tenacious,” Carper said.

Harris works from the bottom up rather than the top down. She goes to the community and asks them what they need, and then works to get it, he added. She’s also a strong advocate for community involvement. It’s not enough for her to accomplish something, she wants the community to take over the project and make it their own.

Perhaps her desire to get the community involved stems from one important lesson she’s learned over three decades of service: Never turn down a volunteer.

“Everyone doesn’t have the same talents, but never turn down anyone who wants to help. You can never do it yourself. You need others to get things done.”

Harris started her long career of community service at Perry High School where she took on any volunteer activity she could find.

One thing that stands out to her now, 40 years after graduation, was during the 1960s when racial tensions were high and “nothing could be done by the staff. It was a real ugly time.”

She worked with groups of white and black students to calm things down and make the school a more peaceful place.

After Perry, she graduated from the Median School of Allied Health Careers and began working as a dental assistant. She married her husband John in 1975 on the same day they started dating in high school. They then moved into and renovated their Spring Hill home — the one they live in to this day.

During renovations, the Harrises rented a dumpster and parked it on the street. But before they had a chance to fill it with construction waste, other Spring Hill residents filled it with trash, and she complained to the Spring Hill Civic League.

The Civic League paid for a new dumpster, which she promptly filled before her neighbors could get to it. She offered to return the favor, but wasn’t expecting the group to ask her to run for league president.

Harris ran in 1977 after two years as a member and block worker — and won.

“I was probably down at city council more than anything,” she said about her job as president, which she held until 1995. “I was always testifying for something.”

From there, her “career” snowballed. In a seven-page resume current only through 2003, Harris lists more than 90 separate volunteer positions that range from donating more than 100 pints of blood to serving as president of the Pittsburgh Public School Board.

“It all came from being raised in the church,” said Harris, a life-long member of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church on North Avenue. “[The] pastor would always do for others before he’d do for himself.”

In addition to her many community activities, Harris has always been active at St. Matthew’s, although her duties on city council make it difficult for her to volunteer much at the church these days.

She helped found the Northside Public Safety Committee in the early 1980s, at the same time her children were getting involved in tee ball and softball. In 1988 she was elected a Democratic Committeewoman, and a decade later became the chairwoman for the 26th Ward, a position she still holds.

Harris remained active in her children’s — Jean’s, Trisha’s and John, Jr.’s — school activities until they all graduated high school, and was involved with many PTAs and eventually the school board in 1999.

Harris also served on Northside Leadership Conference from 1988 to 1995.

“We needed to work together,” she said of the community councils. “There was strength in numbers.”

Together with leaders from 13 other neighborhoods, she worked toward goals like shutting down the Garden Theater (which she pronounces thee-ate-er), a goal that the community didn’t accomplish until 2007.

“Sometimes people don’t realize the time it takes to get things done,” she said.

It’s taken Harris herself some time to reach a position that gives her a little more power in getting things done. She turned 57 on January 6, the same day her first grandson was born.

And now, rather than running down to City Council every day to testify, she shows up early each morning and leaves late each night, as her secretary takes calls from constituents and she plugs away at the hundreds of problems, both big and small, that plague the city.

Lifetime friend Jan Seitz said Harris is available 24/7, and is willing to give out her home phone number.

“She seems to really enjoy [her work] … it’s not a nine to five job with her, that’s for sure.”

Her persistence and dedication to District 1 has paid off, and with the help of other city council members, she was able to maneuver $2.6 million from the city’s 2010 budget to fund many Northside projects, including one to fix up the area’s business districts.

Harris remembers the Northside of her youth, when she and her mother could walk down to East Ohio Street and get all their shopping done. “You never had to go anywhere else. We never even thought of going to a mall or anywhere because everything was right there.”

 On weekends she and her friends could buy a movie ticket and snacks for 50 cents. “If we weren’t going down to the Garden or the Kenyon, we’d go to the Buhl Planetarium,” she said.

But the thing Harris misses the most is the Market House that used to stand in Allegheny Center before they built the high-rise apartment buildings and mall.

“I see [the Northside] coming along very well,” Harris said. “One day I’d like it to be somewhat as it was years ago.”

Of course, she knows the Northside will never be exactly the same, but she believes the community can recover its old spirit and become a bustling center of commerce and community once again.

And even though being city council president allows her to do many great things for the Northside, she doesn’t plan on advancing her political career.

“It was kind of funny coming into this job, getting paid for what you love to do,” Harris said. “I’m in it because it makes me feel good to work with others to make a difference.”

Seitz said that Harris goes to nearly every event she’s invited to, because she prides herself on making a difference. “Now on the city council I know she goes to everything. She’ll go five or six places in one day.”

But not everyone appreciates Harris’s work. “You’re not a miracle worker,” Harris said. “You can’t please all the people all the time, even though you try. I just move on and do what I do best.”

What she does best is invest her time and energy into making District 1 a robust community with streets safe for kids and active business districts for adults. That’s not something she can do alone, though.

“I’m always looking for another volunteer.”

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