BUSO performs Shostakovich and Beethoven at Symphony Hall on November 20,
8 p.m.

Vol. IV No. 14   ·   17 November 2000   

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Dora Harris, 83, is BU’s "princess" of psychology

By Hope Green

Speech does not come easily to Dora Harris. The cerebral palsy that limits her mobility also affects the muscles she needs to form words, and she labors over every syllable. Yet if you ask her, she will eagerly tell stories of her long life in Boston, or commiserate over current events. The presidential election? Don’t get her started.

Dora Harris talks about spring course offerings with Joanne Palfai, administrative assistant for academic affairs in the CAS department of psychology. Photo by Michael Hamilton  

Harris, 83, has found plenty of opportunities for conversation at BU. She has been taking psychology courses on campus since the fall 1997 semester, through a special arrangement with Metropolitan College’s Evergreen Program for senior citizens. Two or three afternoons a week, an MBTA van picks her up at the Coolidge House nursing home in Brookline and drops her off in her motorized wheelchair at 64 Cummington St., where, depending on the driver’s schedule, she waits in the lobby up to 45 minutes for her class to begin. She is cheered by the students and academic staff who greet her at the door.

"I love to come here," Harris says, "because when I come here, I’m in a learning world." Learning is not something Harris takes for granted. As a young girl, she was misdiagnosed as mentally retarded and denied a formal education until the age of 12. "Sometimes I felt like I was a prisoner in my own body because I couldn’t do what other children did," she says. "I saw the other kids go to school and carry their books. I wanted to do that so badly!"

Harris’ father died when she was two, and she and her mother went to live with an aunt and six cousins in Boston’s now-vanished West End. "It was a marvelous neighborhood," she recalls. "Children would play all kinds of games on the street. It was a different world then. Even with all my problems, I was a happy child."

Harris remained at her aunt’s apartment until she was well into her 20s. Although she had a tendency to fall, she was able to move about with crutches or a walker. She still remembers the time she went on her first solo shopping trip, defying stern warnings from a cousin. "I said to her, ‘Don’t discourage me; I’m going into town by streetcar.’ She said, ‘OK, but take a cab home.’ I went to Filene’s Basement, and I took the streetcar home, and every day after that I traveled around by public transportation."

Later, Harris lived semi-independently for 37 years in Brighton and Dorchester, where she enjoyed reading, entertaining friends who dropped by, and working on her needlepoint while listening to talk radio. She also frequented adult education programs, and took a special interest in philosophy and psychology. At BU she attends the course lectures faithfully, even though she cannot fully participate and can no longer hold a book.

"She gets the most out of interacting with the students before and after class," says Joanne Palfai, the CAS psychology department’s administrative assistant, who affectionately refers to Harris as "chief" and "the princess." "It’s amazing to me that she’s 83 years old and has the stamina to come here, even with her disability. She has quite a few obstacles getting here, first of all waiting for the nursing home staff to get her up and dressed, and then waiting for the van, which is always an ordeal, so she really overcomes a lot.

"Dora loves the classroom, she loves to just take everything in," Palfai adds. "And the social part of it is wonderful. We’re all inspired by her -- I mean, you’re having a bad day and then she comes in, and you think to yourself, wow, that really puts it in perspective!"


17 November 2000
Boston University
Office of University Relations