In January, Don Harper became the first African-American to serve as trustee chair of any South Carolina Baptist Convention-related institution, including the Executive Board of the convention. His election as Anderson University’s board chair was historic, but it was also not surprising, given the Christian character, work ethic, and devotion to Christ of this godly man. His consistent theme is “I am blessed,” and he uses those words as motivation to be a blessing to others.
AU president Evans Whitaker called him “a great man, an exemplary trustee, a committed Christian, churchman, supporter of our convention, proven board leader, and a staunch supporter of Anderson University in every way.” Harper has served the previous two years as vice chair.
He is a member of Utica Baptist Church in Seneca, a predominantly white congregation, where he teaches the largest Sunday school class, has served as a deacon, on several other committees, and, in 2013, led the pastor search committee as chair.
“I didn’t even know what a Southern Baptist was until we came to South Carolina. We moved often during my career, but we never visited a church unless we were invited. We visited 10 churches in the Seneca area and narrowed it down to three, and one of the three was Utica. The first time we visited Utica, the songs were intentionally directed toward the message, and that was so phenomenal to us. The welcoming spirit of the church was a key,” he said. “It was evident the pastor wanted us to join the church, which made a difference. It was not that evident with other pastors we sat down and talked with.”
Harper, the youngest of 12 siblings, grew up on a farm in Alabama during the time of segregation. His dad had been a sharecropper but wanted to be a landowner. The problem was none of the white bankers would loan him the money he needed — except one.
“God was in the heart of the banker, and God was in the heart of my dad. It changed our lives. I don’t know what kind of person I would have been had I been a sharecropper’s son instead of an entrepreneur’s son who owned a farm,” he said.
He wrote a book about his mom and dad and their Christian values called “Blessed Is the Man.”
“My mom and dad were people of integrity. He was a Psalm 1 man, and she was a Proverbs 31 woman. With that kind of upbringing, if I am not what I should be, it is not their fault,” he said.
He said, “Some of the banking associations have caught on to this (the story of his dad’s loan in his book) and they are asking the question, ‘Why aren’t more of us like this banker? If this guy could do this in 1942, why can’t we be doing some of that today?’” He is receiving invitations to speak at various banking associations, and they are buying his book.
He rose from production worker to vice president of human resources for Goodyear International, traveling throughout much of the world. He retired in 2006 and moved into Keowee Key, a lake community in Oconee County.
During his time with Goodyear in Akron, Ohio, he was elected to serve on the board of trustees at Malone University, a Quaker school in the area. He served for 12 years on that board, six as chair.
As a trustee at Anderson, he observed, “I have never seen a place that had a growth pattern as great. From the standpoint of the number of students over the last 12 years, it is just a great example of having a good system of management, leadership, vision, and strategic direction. Even in my 12 years at Malone, I don’t think I ever had the experience of walking on that campus and feeling how much the students appreciated what the school means to them.”
His wife, Gerri, a retired nurse, is one of his major sources of inspiration. When you ask her how she is doing, she typically responds, “I am blessed, highly favored of the Lord, and going to heaven.”
He met her for the first time at a church service in Illinois. His first cousin had invited him to church, and he said, “As the Lord would have it, we sat on the bench with the prettiest woman who has ever lived. About 14 months later, we were married.” He was then drafted into the Army and spent 13 months in South Korea. “I didn’t seen Gerri for 13 months, but she wrote me every day,” he said.
As a young boy, he trusted Christ as Savior after a serious conversation with his mother. “In the African-American communities, you didn’t just walk up front and join the church. There was a process you went through — something like a mourner’s bench, when one week out of the year the church would have a revival. I sat there for three days, waiting for something to happen. On Thursday morning, my mom knew that something was going on in my life and talked to me. We nailed it down right there on the farm yard,” he said. It became official in the church when he came forward and professed his faith.
At 73, he is a cancer survivor and continues to live a busy life teaching the Bible in church and at community Bible study, serving in his local church and with various community projects. He has seen the ugly face of prejudice and injustice but has always kept his focus clearly on Christ.
The Harpers have a daughter Keisha, a son Kevin who is married to Tiffany, and four grandchildren.
Psalm 37:23 is one of his favorite verses, “The steps of a man are established by the Lord; and He delights in his way.” He points out that God “does not manipulate us but puts the right things in place for us to get where He wants us.”
Whitaker emphasized, “He is a blessing to our board and to South Carolina Baptists. I look forward to working closely with him to advance Anderson’s mission of evangelical Christian higher education.”
Today, the Harpers are downsizing, but not slowing down. They are building a new, smaller home in the Clemson area. He is a blessed man and has earned the reputation of being a blessing to others.