90 Years and Counting Harold Fletcher Is Nation's Oldest Active Professor
For his 90th birthday, Dr. Harold Fletcher’s children and grandchildren threw a party for him in OC’s McIntosh Conservatory. Everyone came.
It was on a Sunday afternoon, the weekend of Thanksgiving. While of course, “everyone” did not attend, hundreds did making up a heavenly throng of friends, students, mentees and family who came to say “Happy Birthday” and “Thank You.”
He hugged necks, shook hands, posed for pictures and remembered them all. The venerable sage. The crusader for civil rights. The philosopher. The composer. The lover of music and books and learning. THE Harold Fletcher. The one who doesn’t want a fuss made about him.
The party was lovely.
And the next week, after celebrating his 90th birthday, the Professor Emeritus finished out another semester of teaching a college class.
Those of us who have sat at his feet, were conducted in one of his choirs, or discussed the big questions with him over coffee are not surprised that Dr. Fletcher remains in the classroom.
Indeed, aren’t we grateful that his health allows it? And we are grateful that some of our children and even grandchildren have the opportunity to be around him.
Though we are not surprised, it is a big deal. No one else is still teaching at the college level at 90 years old! Granted, our research isn’t exhaustive, but we’ve had outside researchers on the case and we can’t find anyone else who does it.
Dr. Fletcher is the one who gave us our alma mater, “Hail to Oklahoma Christian,” which we sing every Monday morning in Chapel. He composed The Oklahoma Set, showcased during the State of Oklahoma’s centennial in 2007.
In OC’s relatively short history of little more than six decades, the Fletcher Legacy certainly includes his efforts for equality among students during the Civil Rights fight in the 60s.
To look at the tapestry of our campus today, it seems almost implausible that OC dealt with segregation, a sit-in, arrests and expulsion of African-American students. It happened, though. Dr. Fletcher was there – an advocate for the students. It was another time.
Do the “kids” in class these days appreciate him? Yes, they do. And so does he.
“I have to be conscious constantly that I’m a lot older than they are. I have a picture in my office of me, a headshot (from the 1950s),” Fletcher said. “Every day I come to class, I look at it to remind me of how old I am and how long the distance between my time in life and their time in life. Being in the classroom is addictive. I’m a student and that’s what
He has a restless, searching desire to learn how everything is connected. A person like him never gets 'old' in his thinking.
I’ve spent my life being. Viewing the world from here, I don’t know how old I am.”
Says the man who gave up his passion for piano to enlist in the Navy in 1941, yes, the year of the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II.
When he returned home from service, he pursued his dream to teach. He began teaching in Florida in 1948 before being named OC’s first faculty member – at then-Central Christian College in Bartlesville a short time later.
His class preparation then and to this day involves reading anew his material, listening afresh to music – even rap music – and still asking the big questions, not just in music, but in life as well.
“Intro to Philosophy is my favorite class. It has meant more to me than anything else,” Fletcher said. “There are many things more important than music – the great questions, those studies are more important, by far.”
Jeff Bingham (88), an accounting major, remembers those questions from Fletcher’s Topics in Philosophy class during his senior year.
“One morning in particular, he set a plastic orange chair in the center of our semi-circle of 25 or so students. He asked, ‘Does this chair exist? How do you know that? Do you exist? How do you know that? What does existence entail?’ So went the conversation for the balance of the hour,” said Jeff, now a major gifts officer at Oklahoma Christian. “His efforts to help me learn to think about why I believe what I believe have been invaluable as I’ve moved through life.”
David (87) and Leah (Powell 89) Hamrick were among the music students who learned life lessons at Dr. Fletcher’s feet.
“He has a restless, searching desire to learn how everything is connected,” David said. “A person like him never gets ‘old’ in his thinking. He still has a childlike wonder at the works of God, including those that shine through God’s creatures in great music and art. No matter how many weeks we spent studying J.S. Bach, he still grumbled that there was still so much more he should cover, he just didn’t have time.”
The Hamricks’ daughter Amelia currently is an Honors Program student at Oklahoma Christian who recently became pretty famous for a discovery of her own. (Read about Amelia).
“Dr. Fletcher is the kindest, gentlest of Christian men and is so humble. I am so glad to have had the privilege of studying with him and that our daughter is the third generation in our family to benefit from his teaching,” Leah said.
As alumni, Dr. Fletcher is among our beloved teachers. We hold so fondly to them because they gave so much of themselves to us.
And that meant that others had to share. In this case, the Fletcher children – Alicia Burch (70), Sylvia Hurst (77), Nancy Snyder and John (82) – and Harold’s beloved wife, Mary Helon, who passed away in 2001.
“The years of my mother’s declining health set an example of how to lovingly care for someone who needs the care of their spouse. Perhaps that is the greatest legacy he gave me,” said John, also a “Dr. Fletcher” and professor of music at Oklahoma Christian. “He is the Energizer Bunny of a professor. Truly the process of studying and preparing for classes helps keep him feeling young and vibrant.”
He has been in the OC classroom for more than 55 years – pursuing a love of learning and a love of teaching.
Happy 90th Birthday, Dr. Fletcher!
View more stories from the Summer 2014 issue of Vision magazine.