OXFORD — When asked to describe the life of University of Mississippi special education professor Lela Maxine Harper, one word almost always comes up: “inspiration.”
Harper, 57, a quadriplegic, whose cerebral palsy confined her to a motorized wheelchair, had the ability to motivate and humble faculty and students with not only her intellect but also her determination and kindness.
She passed away shortly after 4 a.m. on Tuesday, June 11, from pneumonia under hospice care at home. A visitation is scheduled for Saturday, June 15, beginning at 12:30 p.m. in the parlor of First Presbyterian Church in Greenwood. A graveside service will follow at 2 p.m. at the old Mr. Pisgah Cemetery. A second visitation is planned for family and friends on Sunday, June 23, at the same location, followed by a 2 p.m. memorial service. Wilson and Knight Funeral Home in Greenwood, Miss. is handling all arrangements.
“Maxine was probably one of the biggest inspirations anyone will ever meet in education,” said David Rock, UM dean of education. “She persevered where so many would have given up, and she showed us the real power of someone’s mind. Every time anyone ever told her she couldn’t do something, she went out and did it.”
A lifelong Mississippian, Harper served as director of the UM Center for Educational Research and Evaluation and as a clinical assistant professor of special education. For more than 13 years, she was a fixture at the School of Education, often seen in the company of her service dog and companion of 12 years, Sonny, a border collie she often referred to as the center’s “mascot.”
During her tenure, Harper worked with other education faculty at UM to enhance special education instruction, using her experiences and expertise to help students connect the theories of the field to the individual with special needs.
“Often people connect a physical disability with a mental disability,” explained Harper in a 2007 interview with the Ole Miss Alumni Review magazine. “But when teaching students with special needs, it’s important to focus on what they can do, not what they can’t do.”
Despite severe physical challenges throughout her life, Harper will be remembered for overcoming extreme difficulties. Cerebral palsy waged a long war on her muscles and joints, but her mind remained sharp and determined.
As a child in the Mississippi Delta in the 1960s, Harper was told her disability made formal education impossible. After attending special schools, she proved this prediction wrong by gaining acceptance into Pillow Academy in Greenwood in the sixth grade. She graduated as class valedictorian in 1974.
Harper earned a bachelor’s degree in special education from Delta State University, then completed a master’s degree in special education from Mississippi State University and became a special education teacher at the Leflore County School for Handicapped Children.
“I met Maxine 33 years ago when I was finishing my doctorate and working at the Greenwood Commonwealth,” said Harper’s longtime friend and retired CERE director Kathleen Sullivan, who hired Harper at UM. “My editor wanted me to take her picture because she was going to write a column about education issues. From then on, we were friends. She was so kind and good to my children and family; she became ‘Aunt Maxine.’ She was just so full of joy about education and children.”
After six years at LCSHC, Harper pursued a doctorate in curriculum and supervision from Delta State and began a career in educational software development until joining UM as a research analyst in 2000.
“Everything I ever asked her to do exceeded my expectations by 500 percent,” Sullivan said. “You could tell that she put her heart and soul into every project she worked on.”
Harper had multiple successes at UM. In 2003, she was named associate director of CERE. In 2004, the local chapter of Phi Delta Kappa awarded her its annual Outstanding Researcher Award. She was promoted to CERE director in 2009. During her last years at UM, she also served on the Chancellor’s Committee on Accessibility, helping address and improve environments across campus for those with physical and non-physical disabilities.
With only limited use of her hands, Harper completed dozens of grant proposals, evaluations, academic papers and other works using her right index finger and a special keyboard. She averaged 10 words per minute.
“I remember the first time I ever worked on a grant proposal with Dr. Harper,” Rock said. “She somehow finished her entire draft over night. When I asked her, ‘How could you possibly have done this already?’ she just said, ‘I did it one finger at a time.’”
In this method, Harper documented her life story with the 2009 publication of her memoir “Journey of Hope.” The book, which details the events of her life and struggles with cerebral palsy, was a finalist for UM’s 2012 common reading experience.
Her most recent publication last fall was “Boost your Baby’s Brainpower,” a set of child development cards designed for distribution at the community’s Excel by 5 Resource center to help young parents understand the importance of mental and emotional development during the first five years of a child’s life.
Besides her work at CERE—where she helped evaluate important grant-funded programs at UM including the Barksdale Reading Institute, Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction, Early Learning Mentorship Program and more—she impacted thousands of pre-service teachers.
“I can’t tell you the number of emails and letters from students Dr. Harper received saying what a huge impression she had made on them in class,” said Joey Rutherford, CERE project coordinator. “She made students want to be the best teachers they could.”
For almost four years, Rutherford helped Harper prepare to teach classes by arranging furniture, setting up technology and equipping her with a microphone to help give lectures. He also drove Harper to and from work each weekday.
“Those drives to work in the morning were some of the best teaching moments I’ve ever had,” he said. “I’d be frustrated over a football game or something and she’d remind me what’s really important in life. Even after we’d both bought new houses, and it was 20 minutes to her door each morning, I never considered not doing it. Our friendship was worth it. She was just that kind of person.”
Harper is survived by her sister Wanda Clark and niece Avent Clark of Greenwood.