How Do You Defy?

Johanna "Nan" Alderfer Harris '51

Through the eyes of her husband, William Harris (HC '47) on their lifelong commitment to the Bi-Co community.

How did you and Nan meet?

As a student at Haverford College, I spent a lot of time at Bryn Mawr, and several of my friends had married Bryn Mawr women, but I did not meet Nan until she was a junior at Bryn Mawr and I was a third-year medical student at Penn.

Memories of campus?

I loved Goodhart and would park my shiny new buff and brown Oldsmobile outside the building to take pictures before heading in to hear Nan sing. And both Nan and I loved the quirky phone booth beneath the stairs at Denbigh because we spent so many lovely hours on that phone.

How was Nan connected to Bryn Mawr as an alumna?

Nan’s heart was always with Bryn Mawr. It received her devotion, attention, and energy from the beginning—starting with her work with the Bryn Mawr Club of Boston all the way through her presidency of the Alumnae Association and her prolonged role as trustee and trustee emeritus. She would get the whole family involved! When the Bryn Mawr Book Store of Cambridge needed a sign, our kids painted it in the basement.

Why did the two of you remain so devoted to the Bi-Co?

I’ve always had great admiration for Bryn Mawr because of its academic rigor and expectation of excellence. Nan felt the same about Haverford College and what it meant to me. That mutual appreciation made it easy for us to stay connected to both places.

As a couple, you have been equally generous donors to both Bryn Mawr and Haverford. How did that commitment come about?

At Nan’s fifth reunion, someone made the appeal for women to have an equal say in and share of their family’s philanthropy. That idea was groundbreaking back in the 1950s, but it seemed perfectly reasonable to us. So, we made the commitment to split our philanthropic dollars equally, independent of the causes we each support and the difference in earnings in our careers. For Bryn Mawr and Haverford, it meant getting equal shares.

How did Nan defy expectation?

Although Nan had been an English major at Bryn Mawr, her lifelong passion for environmental conservation led her to receive a master’s in biology from Harvard at age 68. She was critical in both the creation and development of the Bi-College major. In fact, three decades earlier, she had proposed that Bryn Mawr initiate the field as a serious area of study. Over time, she established three chairs in environmental studies, which were essential to the growth of the department. Nan was very pleased that she had fostered that compelling area of study and especially loved admiring the dedication of both the Bi-College faculty and students to growing it as well.

How are you keeping Nan’s legacy alive at Bryn Mawr?

Although Nan left us two years ago, she and I made a substantial gift in our names in response to COVID-19 to help Bryn Mawr with the necessary steps to ensure students could continue their education on campus. It’s simply the latest way in which Nan has defied expectation.