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A mother’s strength

Alma Harris celebrates turning 100

When you’ve lived an entire century, and raised eight children, you have been treated to a lot of Mother’s Days.

This Sunday, Alma Harris will mark another of them, 85 years after she was married, and 100 years after she was born April 14, 1921 to Annie and John Thomas Tharp.

She was born one month after Warren G. Harding was inaugurated as the 29th president of the United States and a year into the American experiment of Prohibition.

Her father, who worked at Sheips Mill at the Mill Pond, had married Annie Ferguson, and the couple had four children, three daughters. Clara Mae, Alma and Mary Agnes, and one son, John Thomas.

Alma is the last remaining of her siblings, and she remains remarkably energetic, still living alone in the house her husband built on Brownsville Road.

Her daughter, Nellree Layne, checks on her daily, and while her mom has lost some of her hearing, her eyes dimmed in their reading of the Bible and her movements slowed by arthritis, Alma Harris remains sharp as she’s crossed the century mark.

“I’m not a lonely person,” she said emphatically, in an early April interview at her home.

Harris recalls her life growing up, how the bounty from the sea spared the local population from the ravages of the Depression.

“She said they got along fine, grew their own vegetables, and had chickens,” said her daughter. “She said they had no problem during the Depression.”

In 1936, she decided to quit school at age 15 to marry the love of her life, Albert Benjamin Harris.

Industrious with a varied career, from oystering to gill net fishing to the building trades, Albert Harris passed away in 2005 at the age of 88, after the couple were married for one year shy of 70 years.

“He was very handsome,” recalls Alma of her husband. “He was 5 foot 11 inches tall, and he had olive skin and dark hair and dark brown eyes.”

His looks were inherited from his grandfather Polous’ roots in Italy.

“There were five of these boys who slipped away on a ship from Italy,” said Alma Harris. “They got in the hole and nobody knew they were on there.

“When they got about halfway over they come out,” she said. “They had gone so far they wouldn’t take them back and they landed in New York. I don’t know how he worked himself down here.”

Being married at age 15 was hardly unusual in 1936, and Alma Harris remembers fondly the wedding ceremony they had at her mother’s home, conducted by Brother Garrett, preacher at the First Baptist Church.

“The house was decorated pretty for my wedding,” she said. “We had big baskets with flowers in them, it was nice. I wore a white dress, street length, with white shoes. He wore white pants, a white shirt and a navy-blue coat.”

Alma Harris worked early in her life, but once she began having children, she remained a full-time homemaker, doing a lot of sewing out of her home, both for her family and for others.

“I had all the work I had at home, I never had a babysitter,” she said.

In her early years, Alma Harris worked for the Nichols department store, and would dine every day at the Riverside Café at Water Street and Avenue G, in a building which was recently restored by Chris and Cindy Clark.

“Men and women didn’t eat together,” recalled Alma Harris.

“I really liked the Nichols,” she said. “I was working when Dr. (Photis) Nichols was finishing school and he told me “Alma, I’m going off to learn to be a doctor and I’m going to come back and doctor you and your children.” I said ‘Oh yeah, that’s what you think. You’re not doctoring me and my children.”

Nichols went on to graduate from Emory University medical school, to complete a residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami and to serve as Apalachicola’s physician for 50 years. He passed away in 2017 at the age of 94.

As it turned out, Nichols delivered Harris’ four youngest children, Charles Thomas “Tommy” Harris, twins Marilyn Agnes Lively, who now lives in Illinois, and sister Mary Margaret, who was killed in an auto accident at age 14, and the youngest, Ronnie Harris, who lives at Highland Park.

Because her husband wanted more children, these four youngest followed an older four – the eldest, James Albert, who passed away a year ago, George Samuel, Nellree Layne and Ida Coulter.

While the count may not be exact, Alma’s direct descendants add up to 20 grandchildren, 39 great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren.

“The Lord is the reason,” said Layne. “My mother has been a Christian woman all her life.”

Growing up as “Pentecostal people,” her children “went to church all the time, and we read the Bible. During the week we even went to midweek service,” she said. “She would fix breakfast and she would be singing. My mother was just a wonderful mother.”

Layne said her mom never smoked a cigarette, never drank, and never said a curse word.

“She always told us, ‘If you don’t have something good to say, I don’t want to hear it,” said Layne. “My mother had very high morals. She loved working in her yard and loved growing her flowers. Up until two years ago she made a lot of quilts, but she doesn’t see good enough to be doing that.

“She was a fulltime mother and housekeeper who cooked three full meals a day,” said her daughter. “She was an excellent seamstress; she made everything we wore. She made baby clothes, and she had a lot of people that really commented on her sewing.”

These days, Alma Harris likes to sit in her large recliner and watch the news and enjoy the SonLife Broadcasting Network.

And she continues to read from her Bible, which is now a large print version.

“That will give you the best education you can get,” she said, tapping on it lovingly.

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Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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