The Harters of Tempe left an endurable mark in art and historic preservation.
Tom Harter taught art for 38 years at Arizona State University while producing a remarkable body of work as a painter. His wife, Helen Harter, a member of a Tempe pioneer family, was an accomplished artist, who taught art for decades in Valley public schools. Their daughter, Susan Harter, a fourth-generation Tempean, earned three degrees in art, taught art and other subjects in Arizona, California, and overseas and was a passionate advocate for the preservation of Tempe’s oldest buildings and structures.
Just as they had “art” at the center of their surnames, the Harters had the additional distinction of living from 1951 to1968 in Tempe’s most prominent pioneer home, the Niels Petersen House, built in 1892, at Priest Road and Southern Avenue. Their life there additionally stood as an example of saving historic structures in the city.
Thomas John Harter was born in 1905 in Naperville, Ill. The family moved in 1920 to Los Angeles when Tom was 15 because of his father’s failing health. He studied at several art schools in Los Angeles and New York, including studies with Harvey Dunn, a noted illustrator. When still a teen, Tom became a lithographer’s apprentice, advancing to journeyman, 1922-25. In time, he was a staff artist for the Los Angeles Examiner, 1925-29. For a year he served as the newspaper’s art department chief.
Tom took evening classes at the California Art Institute. While taking night classes in art, he met Tempe-born Helen O’Connor. They were married in 1930. Driving a Model T, they moved to New York City to advance their art careers and to work as commercial illustrators. Tom was able to show some of his work at the Brooklyn Art Museum. He took further classes in 1930 at the Art Students League and the Grand Central Art School in New York.
The couple spent the winter of 1935 in Tempe, Helen’s hometown. Tom was taken by the quality of the desert light and the landscape for his work. He would be quoted that southern Arizona “…has more accessible scenes and subjects than any other place with which I am familiar, and it surely the most picturesque and dramatic part of the Southwest. Why I could paint for years within a few miles of either Tucson or Phoenix without exhausting the possibilities of either place.”
Tom met Grady Gammage, President of Arizona State Teachers College, who recognized Tom’s talent. It took more than a year of convincing before Tom acquiesced to teach at the college. The Harters permanently moved to Tempe in 1937. That year, he joined the college staff. He earned a bachelor of arts degree there in 1940 and a master of fine arts degree from the University of Oregon two years later. Along the way, Tom was an illustrator for Arizona Highways magazine, plus other Arizona-related books, including “Game in the Desert” (1939); and “Hunting in the Southwest” (1946), both written by his brother-in-law, Jack O’Connor. Tom also illustrated the book “Arizona: The History of a Frontier State (1950) by Rufus Kay Wyllys, who taught history at ASU. Tom also served as the fine arts division superintendent at Arizona State Fair.
Tom was widely lauded. Rudy Turk, founding director of the ASU Art Museum, said this of Tom, “Both in his art and in his teaching, he (has) established and maintained high standards of excellence. His paintings reflect the quality of life’s achievement: excellence in execution, persistence in endeavor, fervent belief in the inherent beauty and goodness of man and the world.” In 2010, Turk commented on Tom. “He probably contributed as much to Arizona overall and Arizona art, in particular as anyone we’ll ever know.”
Many of his works are in private and public collections, including Valley cities and both Mesa and Glendale community colleges.
Tom died in 1981.
Helen Harter also was born in 1905. Her grandparents, James W. and Mary Ann Woolf, came to Tempe from Kentucky, by way of New Mexico, in 1888. She was the daughter of Andrew J. and Ida Woolf O’Connor. Ida was a critic teacher at Arizona State Teachers College, tasked with practical training of future teachers. Helen’s brother, Jack O’Connor, became an arms/ammunition editor for publications, including Outdoor Life magazine. He also wrote two books, one being a memoir of his Tempe boyhood, “Horse and Buggy West.” In addition, he wrote two novels, “Conquest” in 1930 and “Boom Town” in 1938.
In 1924, Helen graduated from Tempe Normal School, then started teaching at age 18 on a cattle ranch near Tucson. In 1936, she earned a bachelor of arts degree from ASTC. A master of arts degree from there came in 1950. After she and Tom settled in Tempe, Helen worked as a critic teacher through the auspices of Payne Training School at the now razed Rural Elementary School. Later she taught art at Chandler Junior and Senior High Schools, as well as the school in Guadalupe. She retired in 1968. Helen was a founding member of the Tempe Historical Society board. During the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, she wrote a series of articles from oral histories for the Tempe Daily News. She also wrote articles for Tempe’s centennial in 1971.
Helen wrote and illustrated three books, “Goldilocks y Los Tres Osos” (1945) and “Carmelo” (1962). Her work in Guadalupe inspired her to write “English is Fun: The Rhythm and Song Approach to the Teaching of English to Non-English-Speaking Beginners.” (1960).
Helen and Tom had two daughters, Susan Harter, born in 1933, and Eduarda Yates, born in 1935. They both put their energies into preserving Tempe’s past. Philip Yates, Eduarda’s son, who is president of the Riverside Neighborhood Association, continues to advocate for historic preservation with the ardor of his aunt and mother. Helen died in 1990.
A 1990 article in Phoenix New Times noted, “According to the Tempe Museum, the city has the worst record in the state when it comes to preserving sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Sixteen out of 60 Tempe structures have been destroyed in the past nine years.” Susan Harter was quoted in the article that focused on whether to raze the Ash Avenue Bridge over the Salt River, which took place in 1991.
Susan was born in Tempe on November 18, 1933. She attended Payne Training School where her grandmother, Ida O’Connor, was on the faculty. After graduating from Tempe High School, Susan would earn a scholarship for a year at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. She would receive her bachelor’s degree in art and education in 1954 from Arizona State. Susan earned a Master of Arts degree in art from Claremont College in California. Her master’s project featured a series of paintings and drawings related to Helen Keller’s childhood – work inspired by the 1962 film “The Miracle Worker.” Later, Susan worked on a second master’s degree in English at ASU. She traveled to U.S. Air Force bases in France, Spain, and Japan to teach service personnel’s families.
Susan taught in the Roosevelt School District in Phoenix, as well as Kingman, Hermosa Beach, California, Tempe Elementary and Kyrene Elementary school districts, Mesa Community College, and ASU English Department. She was a charter member of the University Club at ASU.
While she won awards for her art, she is especially remembered for her work as a neighborhood and community activist.
Perhaps, she was most adamant about the City of Tempe’s redevelopment at the northwest corner of Mill Avenue and University Drive in downtown Tempe, which became Centerpoint. Many of Tempe’s oldest homes were there, including some built by her great-grandfather.
A Jay Mark column, published in 2011 in the Arizona Republic, noted, “As more and more historic properties were unceremoniously demolished in the name of progress, Harter began actively campaigning to save what was left.”
Susan appeared numerous times before the City Council to appeal for preservation. She was a strong voice in the City’s deciding to save some threatened buildings and getting them relocated near the Tempe Depot. She also paid for moving and restoring another threatened building, the Sampson-Tupper House. She named it the Centennial House in 1988, 100 years after it was built. That was the same year her great-grandparents came to Tempe.
Susan recognized that historic preservation could be facilitated by strong and stable neighborhoods, so she helped establish several neighborhood associations, including Riverside Neighborhood just west of downtown.
The Arizona Preservation Foundation recognized Susan’s work in 1992 by presenting her with its President’s Award.
Susan died January 18, 1993, at the age of 59 from complications of pneumonia.
Her sister, Eduarda, shared at her memorial service, “She wouldn’t accept things as they were if she thought they could be changed for the better. She was an idea person, and she frequently put herself out on a limb in defense of what some thought of as far-out ideas…Susan was a perfectionist, and she held herself to the same high standards that she expected of other people.”
Susan would proclaim, “They say that Frank Lloyd Wright played with blocks until he was 12. Well, I did, too. Even my dreams have architectural backgrounds.”
– Lawn Griffiths