In September of 2017, on the cusp of my fortieth birthday, I set a new decade resolution to spend more time with my ninety-three year old grandfather. As a documentary photographer, with an interest in communities, I asked my grandfather if he’d like to do a portrait and interview project in his retirement community. My grandfather said, “yes.”
My goals for this project were simple. I wanted to have quality time with my grandfather, I wanted to honor and appreciate this last chapter of his life and the community that he chose to spend it with. When I asked him who he wanted to focus on for the project, my grandfather chose the coffee group that he religiously meets with every morning except for Sunday.
The result of that project was a book of portraits and interview excerpts called The Coffee Group that I shared with my grandfather’s community in summer of 2018.
On March 19th, 2019, my grandfather, Robert Harper, passed away at 5:30am. He was the foundation of our family and he will be greatly missed. I will be forever grateful for the time I had working with him on this project, and his words are a comfort as we figure out how to recalibrate our family without our navigator. Here is my grandfather’s portrait and interview from the book:
Robert Harper, Geography Professor/ Author
Sally and I met working on the high school paper. Working on the paper was really the first time that boys and girls had a chance to work together. Everything was separated, so none of us had any experience with the other sex in a social way. At Christmas that first semester Sally and I were working together, she invited me to go on a hayride sponsored by her club. Well, we went on the hayride and I was thrilled with her. But I was shy around girls, and really, adults too.
Afterward I was afraid if I called to ask her out she might say, “no,” or I might have to talk to her parents, and I didn’t want to do that. So I put it off and put it off. That’s when my best friend, George McCoy, locked me in the basement and said he wouldn’t let me out until I called her. But once that happened the dam broke and we were dating all the time.
I thought she was great. She was prickly, but we got along and I just liked being with her. She was my best friend. I was really thrilled when she put on a card one time, “The best thing I ever did was say, ‘I do.'”
My life was serendipity. It all just bubbled along. A wartime wedding and the GI Bill changed my life path. I enjoyed writing the textbooks. I enjoyed teaching. I enjoyed some of the work with organizations. I didn’t always succeed at stuff when I tried, but generally I did. I didn’t plan my life, but my life couldn’t have come out better, except that I wish Sally had lived longer, and I had lived not so long.
I was always kidding her, saying that I’d die and she’d marry some other guy. She pooh-poohed that. I certainly didn’t expect to be the one to live the longest. I don’t want to share my life anymore with anybody except her. I’m a one-woman man.
I don’t dream much, but when I dream I have almost never seen her in a dream. That doesn’t mean I don’t miss her, but I’m a pragmatist. My feeling is that when something happens, it happens. And when it’s over, it’s over, and there’s nothing you can do about it. So there’s no sense mourning about it all. You just have to go onto the next chapter.
I always was afraid of death because I didn’t think there was life after death, but now I’m to a point where it really doesn’t matter to me. When I die there should be no sad songs for me. I have had a good life. But I don’t want anybody trying to extend my life. There’s a difference between living and existing, and I don’t want to just exist.
I grew up in a religious, Republican family. Very traditional. Very conservative. Sally did too. But I think the University of Chicago changed our perspective. There was a lot of social concern and discussion of issues like that. Sally always was afraid she’d become a communist going to that school. But it changed our perspective on life. So once we rejected that old system, it was a matter of learning a new system.
I certainly have shifted from traditional Christianity to feeling that some kind of world religion will ultimately come out of this, and that a lot of religion is just superstition. When you think about how poorly most of the people have lived on the Earth, they were certainly looking for a world that was better than their lot. The poorer you were, the more you wanted.
I don’t really think that there’s life after death, but if there is, I hope they let us look down to see what’s going on in the world, because I think we’re at the beginning of a revolution that is going to change life as much as the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution. I think this information data revolution is going to revolutionize your lives and the lives of your kids. It’s going to be a whole different ballgame.
For more about my grandfather and how much he meant to our family: