The Power of Nan

Remembering Johanna Alderfer Harris ’51 and her invaluable legacy to her beloved Bryn Mawr.

Trustee Emeritus Johanna “Nan” Alderfer Harris ’51 was deeply influenced by Bryn Mawr and spent the rest of her life returning the favor.  

As an alumna, Nan served as a leader in her local club, president of the Alumnae Association, a long-time trustee and trustee emeritus, and a devoted volunteer at the Bryn Mawr Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In recognition, she received two of the College’s highest honors: the Lifetime of Service Award at her 60th Reunion and the Helen Taft Manning Award.

“Everything Nan has done for the College she has done out of a profound love for, and dedication to, Bryn Mawr,” President Kim Cassidy notes. A true Bi-Co couple, Nan and Bill Harris (HC ’47) met while Nan was a student at Bryn Mawr, and they were married for more than 60 years. In many ways, Nan and Bill’s partnership in thinking about how to be engaged and useful to their alma maters has served as a model for the colleges themselves.

“Their affection for, and thoughtful contributions to, Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges have immeasurably improved the two institutions, enabling them to build on strengths while developing important new directions in key fields,” notes President Emeritus Pat McPherson. “Throughout my presidency, while working on the best arrangements for Bi-College collaboration, the patience, good humor and support for both institutions shown by Nan and Bill, helped keep the noses of both presidents to the task and really helped move us all forward in the most fruitful way.”

Now named in her honor, the Johanna Alderfer Harris Program in Environmental Studies is the perfect example of the power of Nan. It was a leap of faith in its infancy, but one Nan was happy to help us make. She saw the need and opportunity for such a program and made that promise a reality by providing generous support for faculty and for a range of co-curricular program activities. The now thriving Bi-Co Environmental Studies Department at Bryn Mawr owes much to Nan’s vision and support and continues to stand out as a model for interdisciplinary innovation and opportunity. “Nan’s engagement with this program has infused it with a spirit of intellectual curiosity, with a commitment to keeping up with an ever-changing field, with a dedication to the highest excellence, and with the strength of Bi-Co collaboration,” President Cassidy remarks.

An English major at Bryn Mawr, Nan was a true Mawrter in her lifelong love of learning and her passion for wanting to make a difference in her world. She was deeply involved in conservation and helping to find solutions to environmental challenges. “It is fitting that Nan has done so much to assure that generations of Bryn Mawr and Haverford students engage the environment, make it a lifelong priority, and protect it for the generations to follow,” President Emeritus Nancy Vickers notes. Nan also served for more than two decades as a trustee and trustee emeritus of the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences and for more than a decade on the chairman’s council for the Trustees of Reservations in Mass. 

At the age of 69, she earned a master’s degree in biology from Harvard University. Her thesis was titled “The Effects of Proscribed Burning of Grasslands on the Nesting Habitat of the Grasshopper Sparrow on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.”  

“I count the opportunity to build a relationship with Nan and Bill as one of the great gifts of being Bryn Mawr’s president. Their contributions to Bryn Mawr and Haverford are incredible, and the impact that they have had on so many of us who have witnessed their love of and dedication to each other cannot be underestimated,” President Cassidy says. “Nan has never been one to want personal recognition. She initially chose to give anonymously and then named gifts in honor of members of her family, but it was deeply important to Bill and to all of us here at the College that Nan be known to future generations at the College she loved so much. Naming the Johanna Alderfer Harris ’51 Atrium, the new light-filled space in Park Science Center, is the perfect tribute to Nan herself, a woman who brought light and care to all those around her. Every time I walk into this spectacular space and see the way that it engages our students and faculty, I will think of her.”

The Harris’ deep love of and loyalty to Bryn Mawr has been truly transformational for the College. For Nan, the feeling was mutual. At her 50th reunion Nan noted, “My years at Bryn Mawr enriched the rest of my life.” Nan will be sorely missed by all of us in the Bi-Co community. Her beloved classmates and Bill might have been among the first to recognize Nan’s true value when she arrived at Bryn Mawr, but so many of us have been privileged to have experienced her kindness and grace and to be welcomed into her ever-widening circle of friends in the years since. We are grateful that her deep devotion to Bryn Mawr will live on in myriad ways and in so many students, faculty, staff, alumnae/i, and friends.