SPJ 2020 Journalism Conference • Sept. 12-13, 2020



Harper remembered for strength, wit

By Billy O'Keefe

By Amanda Dolasinski
Whether he was serenading staff members with his guitar or upholding his duties as an official Maker’s Mark ambassador, Terry Harper never let his illness slow him down.

 In memory of former SPJ Executive Director Terry G. Harper, the Terry G. Harper Memorial Fund in collecting donations for a scholarship in his honor. (Photo by Nikki Villoria)

In memory of former SPJ Executive Director Terry G. Harper, the Terry G. Harper Memorial Fund in collecting donations for a scholarship in his honor. (Photo by Nikki Villoria)

Harper, then-SPJ executive director, died June 2 after a two-year battle with brain cancer. To honor Harper, SPJ is hosting a memorial fund and video tribute this week. Some board members, including his friend, Joe Skeel, will also be wearing yellow lapel pins.
Skeel, SPJ interim co-executive director, said he considered Harper a friend more than a supervisor. The two would grab after-work drinks and attend minor league baseball games together. He remembers when Harper walked around the office singing and strumming his guitar to boost staff morale and guessed he was probably one of the drama kids in high school because he craved to be in the limelight.
Terry Harper, wife Lee Ann and sons Jace and Dale enjoy a family vacation. Harper, then-executive director, passed away June 2 after a two-year battle with brain cancer. (Photo courtesy Lee Ann Harper)

Terry Harper, wife Lee Ann and sons Jace and Dale enjoy a family vacation. Harper, then-executive director, passed away June 2 after a two-year battle with brain cancer. (Photo courtesy Lee Ann Harper)

Harper suffered two seizures in June 2007. After three days of observation at the hospital, doctors told him they suspected there was some type of mass.
Looking back, Skeel said Harper taught him to not sweat the small stuff — just live for the moment.
“It’s easy to get wrapped up and make sure we’re prepared for 15 years from now,” he said. “I learned, definitely live for today. Don’t assume anything for tomorrow.”
Steve Geimann, Sigma Delta Chi Foundation president, said he and other board members feel Harper’s absence.
“His tenure in the top job running the society is noteworthy given how fast other groups go through executive directors,” he said. “That’s a testament of who Terry was and what mattered to him.”
Harper planned to maintain as normal a life as possible knowing he had a tumor on the right side of his brain. The sharp-tongued blogger decided to chronicle the last few years of his life online for his friends and family nationwide to follow in Thumping My Melon at melonthump.blogspot.com.
“Quality of life is my most important consideration,” he wrote. “If my time is indeed limited, I want to live it to the fullest and die on the beach in Cabo San Lucas at sunset with a shot of tequila in one hand and my wife’s hand in the other.”
His wife, Lee Ann, whom he met and fell in love with while Oklahoma State University students in 1982, never left his side. Harper died two weeks before their 20th wedding anniversary.
“It was (hard), but I wouldn’t have kept him here another day,” Lee Ann said. “He was in so much pain.”
Despite medical advancements, doctors were not sure exactly of the problem. Harper’s medical team removed a small piece of his skull for further testing and eventually confirmed the tumor.
Dr. Scott Shapiro, Terry’s neurosurgeon, had operated on Lance Armstrong before he went on to conquer seven Tour de France championships. Lee Ann said her husband felt fortunate to be treated at Indiana University and have one of the top surgeons in the area. He didn’t, however, bank on being miraculously cured. He continued to seek medical opinions from experts at Duke University and the National Institutes of Health.
His new routine included regular six-week chemotherapy sessions. The regimen worked for about a year. He even reduced his chemo treatments to once a month. Feeling better, the couple decided to take a sailing trip to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts last summer. But three days after returning, Terry wrote in his blog that the vision in his left eye went “haywire.”
A doctor would treat Terry for the last time at the end of April. About one week before he died, he was so exhausted and in so much pain, he was staying on a hospital bed in his living room. His medical team hinted that the tumor had progressed significantly.
The couple agreed to keep their two sons, Dale, 17, and Jace, 13, in the loop about Harper’s condition from the very beginning.
“That third week — there was nothing they could do,” Lee Ann said. “That was when I had to tell our children what the doctors had said.”
On June 2, Lee Ann kept her word to her college love. She went to Harper’s computer and found the document she’d been dreading to read – Harper’s final Thumping My Melon post.
He’d written it in October and asked her not to read it until she posted it after his death.
“It was hard,” she said. “But it was also characteristically Terry, so representative of everything that we had said to each other and meant to each other.”




The EIJ News