Born and raised on his family’s rural Pennsylvania ancestral lands, Harper Thompson embraced the legacy of his great-grandfather, Alexander, a Scottish immigrant, and resided all his life in the counties of Schuylkill and Dauphin. Abel and Gussie Thompson welcomed their second son, and third child, into the Twentieth Century on September 28, 1907, a decade before the United States would enter World War I, and amid groundbreaking ingenuity in the form of air travel, automobiles, and the Oreo sandwich cookie.
One of five children, although Abel and Gussie’s first child would not survive infancy, Harper enjoyed the camaraderie of his brothers Abel and Wilbur, and their dear sister, the youngest of the siblings, Lydia. Sheridan, the small town outside of the slightly larger Tower City where the family resided, did not have the luxuries of electricity and indoor plumbing that urban areas were starting to, but it did provide Harper an atmosphere with plenty of opportunity to develop athleticism. Harper born at end of Spanish-American War, his father passing when he was only eleven years old. Harper attended Tower City School, completing eighth grade.
In his teens and early twenties, he played football at Harrisburg Island Park and shared in the Nation’s newfound obsession with boxing by earning his professional status in the sport. At the same time, in metropolitan areas, autos out-populated horses in the streets, and the Jazz Age raged with bootleg alcohol (provided by organized crime) pouring into speakeasies while Flappers with scandalously bobbed hair danced the Charleston. Rural Pennsylvania heard the party through radio waves; the drama of New York City seemed more like a million miles away rather than the mere 137 it was from Sheridan.
The triumphs of Harper’s early adulthood were hard earned though. Father Abel contracted pneumonia from working the mines and passed away at age thirty-seven. Due to Abel’s untimely death, by the pre-pubescent age of eleven, Harper, the sweet boy with a wide grin, was already working in the coal shakers, like his father before him, to earn a livelihood. Fortunately, Abel left Gussie and the kids with a roof over their heads; the Alexander Thompson Estate in Sheridan remained in the family and Gussie’s name until her death when it was sold.
Gussie, a force to be reckoned, was a natural nurturer with her children, garden, and even the family cat. Her kind and gracious hand, albeit firm, ensured her brood was literate, devote, understood the importance of community, and learned to take pride in a job well done. A formidable task for any parent, let alone a single mother, coming face to face with the greatest financial depression ever known in America.
Gussie’s nephew, I vividly remember my Aunt Gussie, Harper’s mother. Although her husband died before I was born, I remember going to Gussie’s house. Her daughter Lydia was always there. Her son, Harper, was a line-man for the telephone company. Our family was always invited into her front room, usually going in the side entrance. I can see Aunt Gussie saying, ‘here comes Junior and his family.’ In the front room, I remember the piano organ, that Gussie used to play. Aunt Gussie would take out albums showing us pictures of the Hensel and Thompson families. I can still see the coal and wood stove being used, not only for heating, but also for cooking. When we went there we had to use the outhouse, but, later, I remember going upstairs to an indoor bathroom. Talking of the second floor, I recall hearing a story that bats lived in the second story. As for Gussie’s parents, my grandparents, I was about six when Howard and Clara passed. I have hardly any remembrance of them. I do remember their homestead in Tower City, Pennsylvania. I have seen pictures of it and remember the inside of the house; it was small, but warm, homey, and organized (V. Hensel, 1998).
Extended family did lend a hand whenever possible. One of Abel’s four siblings, Frank, and his seven children, lived close by in Schuylkill Haven. Having Thompson cousins only four miles away was a comfort to Harper and his siblings. Plus, the proliferation of cousins for Harper on Gussie’s side of the family tree, as she was one of eleven, was impressive. Most of these first cousins were in the local area, allowing Harper and family to see them often.
Not surprisingly, with a role model as genuine and resilient as Gussie, Harper recognized that same strength of spirit in Myrtle Batdorf and fell in love. Thirty-one years to the day his own parents wed on June 15, 1904, Harper watched Myrtle, seventeen years old, walk down the aisle of St. John’s Lutheran Church to become his wife. Despite being raised a staunch Methodist, Harper willingly followed Myrtle into the Lutheran faith and he continued to worship as a Lutheran the rest of his life.
At 6’2” with a lean frame, large hands, and gentle soul, life as a laborer and public servant suited Harper. Myrtle made it clear early on boxing was fine for Jack Dempsey, but not a healthy career path for her husband and father to be, so Harper moved on to work for the electric company. With rural electrification becoming a reality in the late 1930s, it was a good time to be employed as a lineman. However, fearful of the danger associated with installing electricity, Myrtle again insisted Harper find a safer work environment.
The post office turned out to be this haven, and Harper spent his last thirty years of employment as a United States mail carrier making friends with every person on his route and taking care of them as he would his own family.
It was not timidity or lack of conviction causing Harper to acquiesce to his wife’s wishes; rather, his own experience of growing up fatherless, watching his mother serve as both parents, that allowed him to understand Myrtle’s point of view and not want the same fate for his own three “good” boys as he called them. Gerald, Robert and Eugene knew the enormous Love of a father who put the well-being of family and friends above all else.
Gerald describes his father as, “…strict with us boys and always pushed us to do our best. He had a great big smile, but he was passionate and even cried at movies. He was hard-working, church-going, and very kind. He was a friend to many and was a gentle, loving man.” A giant of a man both physically and emotionally, Harper spread kindness through his actions and taught his sons to do the same.
With children, and the onset of World War II, came a move from Tower City to Middletown, and, finally, Harrisburg. Amazingly, neither Harper nor his brothers were drafted, but Harper made his civilian contributions to the war effort by working part-time at the Middletown Air Force base during the 1940s. In the time frame of Harper’s life, he experienced World War I as a child, raised his own children during World War II, and prayed his grandchildren would not be casualties in the Korean or Vietnam War.
Harper Thompson lived his life story within one hour of his place of birth, close to his brothers and their wives, his sister who never married and kept residence with Gussie, Myrtle’s family, and life-long friends. What modern conveniences Porter Township lacked were made up for in community pride and personal relationships. Roads remained dirt far longer than those in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, but the speed at which he traveled was not an issue for Harper; he always enjoyed the ride. Harper was laid to rest in July of 1981 on land he was proud to call home. Gerald, first born to Harper and Myrtle, is the direct ancestor of the Thompson line.
Pastor Gregory Harbaugh wrote: Harper Thompson, 73, died Thursday at Polyclinic Hospital. He was a member of Lakeside Lutheran Church. A former Postal Service employee, Mr. Thompson is survived by his wife Myrtle, and 3 sons Eugene, Gerald and Robert, and 10 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren. Services will be held…and so on reads the obituary. And that’s all it says. But what about the man, the husband, the father, the brother, grandfather and friend? That’s the person you and I have known. A tall, rugged-looking man who sometimes cried at movies, who was sensitive to others, and friendly. I only knew Harper for two years, but I won’t forget him. Every Sunday when he and Myrtle were in church, I could depend on hearing Harper’s deep baritone, ‘Hi ya Gregg!’ as the tall man walked by and shook my hand. I remember, too, the man in the hospital who got teary-eyed talking about his sons, ‘good sons’ he would say; who nearly beamed when Myrtle was near. And who cried when he received communion. You have memories, too. Some fonder than others, I suspect. Some of joy and fun. Others, perhaps, of father angry with erring boys. Of a husband maybe working too hard or worried about bills. Others of Harper’s broad smile and great laugh. Of dad playing with his ‘boys. You remember, too. That’s Harper. For him we grieve. For him we weep. Because we loved him and will miss him. Like Jesus and Lazarus. A good friend. Dead. So he mourned. But the question came “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind kept this man from dying?” That’s our question too, I think, if we really face up to our grief. “Why couldn’t God keep Harper alive and well?” Though death comes to each of us, the timing could usually do better. So we not only weep but we are somewhat angry as well: with hospitals, doctors and a God who didn’t seem to help. Yet amid our grief and anger comes a word, a story, of life and hope that overcome death and sorrow. “I am the resurrection and the life – unbind him and let him go.” Lazarus was raised – a sign to John’s church that resurrection is not only for the end-time but happens now – in the midst of life and death, joy and sorrow – new life, restored life comes into our world. As we may loosen and let go of the bonds of death and the past. Harper, unlike Lazarus, will not rise and walk among us. Lazarus was for John’s church and for us a sign that life overcomes death. We have the sign. Yet not only that. For Jesus’ own death and resurrection stand before us – cross and empty tomb – not only as sign but as gift and power. For we, like Harper, who are baptized have taken part in that death and resurrection – washed in it, enlivened through it, “I am the resurrection and the life” said Jesus. Yet he wept and grieved as we do. But death and grief are not final. God has the last word and the last laugh. We are resurrection and life amid Sorrow and death. For God is with us, inseparable from us and Harper. We remember him. And we untie him, to let him go. For us there is life now. There is more to give and to receive. There is time for joy and laughter. We remember Harper. But we also hope – as the communion of saints and in the resurrection of the dead – for nothing, not even death, can separate him or us from God’s love in Christ Jesus. I am the resurrection and the life.
Entering the world in the family home of parents James Edward, commonly known as Edward, and Beulah, Myrtle Batdorf made her debut on a cold, wintry January day in 1918. As number five of seven children, Myrtle’s birth was more business-as-usual than life-changing for her large, industrious, mining family. Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, welcomed this seventh-generation daughter into its arms as it had her German ancestors before her. Myrtle was born during outbreak of WWI and attended Lykens School, completing eighth grade.
Typical of the youth of her generation, Myrtle and her siblings played games like jump rope, ball and cards. However, the Batdorf children were taught chores came before play and each member was contributing to the family’s well-being as soon as he or she possessed the skills to do so.
Myrtle’s older sister, Mildred, explained: The family had a garden and they dug the ground and got it ready to plant. They grew potatoes, lettuce, celery, onions, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, and a lot more. They had cherry and peach trees. Their mother did canning and raised chickens. Our parents and siblings did all the work, hiring no one to help with the house, garden, or animals.
Washing dishes also fell to the hands of the children, as Beulah had her hands full feeding her brood breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This was all done without the help of electricity since it did not creep its way into the rural landscape of Washington Township until the 1930’s. For many years, candles, kerosene, and coal were used as the family’s main source of heating, without even the luxury of a fireplace, and water was fetched from a well. Long-johns were a must during snowy winters.
The Batdorfs, like many families in the farming and colliery community, made do with the bare minimum. There were no trips to the big city to shop; the local country store was visited infrequently. The birthday and Christmas gifts Myrtle received were always practical items like clothing, usually home-made.
Though there was no shortage of responsibilities, Saturday was a day of rest for the kids often spent playing with the family cat, Blacky, or visiting with some of their extensive relatives. James hailed from a family of nineteen, including his parents, and had twelve brothers and sisters remaining in adulthood. Beulah had four sisters of her own (there was a fifth sibling who passed in infancy) which brought the grand total of aunts and uncles located in the immediate vicinity to seventeen with first cousins numbering at forty-five.
Many of the family picnics after Sunday morning church were conveniently held on the Batdorf farmland since Beulah’s parents lived next door to them throughout Myrtle’s youth and teen years. Some families were beginning to move to urban centers in the early 1920’s, especially with the invention of the automobile in 1914 making travel easier. However, the furthest migrations in this extended family were to neighboring counties.
The Post-World War I era was perhaps the peak of prosperity for Myrtle’s family, as evident in James’ purchase of his own Model-T two years after Myrtle’s birth, despite the tumultuous relationship at the time between miners and mine owners, resulting in strikes in some parts of New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, mines continued to close as the country moved into the shadow of the depression, and in the mid-1930’s James and Beulah were forced to sell their hard-earned home in Big Run and move to a smaller, less valuable property in Lykens with their children who were still living at home.
While some teens were focused on sports and dating, Myrtle remained sheltered in her rural environment. In her adolescent years, school was not compulsory and Myrtle’s attendance, as well as that of her brothers and sisters, at one of the local one room schoolhouses, occurred when they were not needed at home or in the work force. Finally, education gave way to more lucrative activities like employment, especially when being raised during erratic economic times and by strong parents who themselves had worked since childhood. Beulah was, among other things, a master seamstress. This skill both clothed her children and provided a source of extra income. At age sixty, she was hanging wallpaper professionally.
Likewise, James Batdorf was helping his own father at the mines by the time he was four and legitimately employed as a coal laborer by the age of twelve. He worked above and below the anthracite mines for over thirty years and went on to be employed at the Works Progress Administration, and as a road laborer until his death at age sixty-nine.
Of his grandfather, Gerald recounted, “He liked beer and playing cards on Sunday. He liked to have fun. He was a hard worker and a good orator. He was kind and caring.” At a chubby 5’6”, James was the epitome of a jolly man who both worked hard and played hard. Myrtle and her siblings had the honor of watching their parents persevere no matter what the events surrounding them.
Son Gerald also recalled: My mother Myrtle was 5’9” tall with brown hair and hazel eyes; a good home maker and mother. She was a housewife and lived in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania and was a Lutheran and a Democrat. She taught all three of us boys to cook and bake. We took turns doing the dishes, and she always made sure we were clean and dressed for school. She was an out-spoken, sometimes loud, when correcting our errs. She was the “mother hen” and she made sure we had the necessities, for they did not have a lot, but love and praise took care of the rest. Dad was very tall and had been a boxer until mom made him work for Postal Service. He was also a lineman I recall and had very large hands. He provided as best he could for our family of five. As a child, we had a dog named Domino and we got our first TV about 1952, mom said was for part of our education. For what I can remember, up to the early 1940’s we lived in Tower City. We moved to East Lane in Middletown in 1942. Six years later relocated to 416 Clinton Street, then to 5th and Radnor Streets and finally to Green Street, all in Harrisburg. We also we spent time with aunt Lydia and uncles Abel and Wilbur. We were closer to the Batdorf family and we usually had cats and dogs as pets. We lived in multi-level home with coal and gas stoves and outside toilets. Although we had electricity, we used kerosene and candles. Initially we had a water pump, but later when we moved to Harrisburg, we had city water. However, we did all bath in one tub to conserve water usage. As a child, we were expected to wash and dry dishes, set table and help in garden. My mother and grandma taught us to cook. When I was a teen, I earned money working on a milk truck, as a paperboy and in food stores. Sundays always meant going to Evangelical Lutheran church and dinner at Grandmas. We also went there for holiday cookouts. We’d have food, games and cookies on special days, even Labor Day and Halloween. In High School we liked the football games between William Penn and John Harris High Schools. At dances they played Big Band and Slow songs, and we said “No way” as a slang term all the time. After graduating with Electrical training, I bought my first car, a Used Terraplane Hudson for $50 in 1955. I learned to drive when I was 18 and we went on vacation to the seashore, maybe once or twice. My family is known for their stubbornness and I learned from my parents to take care of family and then take care of neighbors.
The Twentieth Century was advancing possibilities for women and bearing witness to accomplishments for them outside the realm of the home. The same year James bought his Model-T, the Nineteenth amendment passed, allowing women the right to vote. Female activism grew stronger as Martha Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, which evolved to today’s Planned Parenthood; Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic; and the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act ensured children a modicum of safety in the workplace, something mothers who were forced to send children to work had been seeking since the Industrial Revolution.
Despite the surge in women’s liberation, or perhaps because of it, or maybe due to the financial climate, Myrtle found herself pregnant and engaged to her beloved, Harper Thompson, at the age of sixteen and married by seventeen. The young couple started their married life as the world ebbed closer to the next world war involving all the major super powers. Myrtle was blessed to have her husband remain stateside, out of military life, gainfully employed, and present for the births of their three boys as they together watched the events of World War II unfold.
A beauty at 5’9” with chestnut hair and hazel eyes, Myrtle complimented Harper’s 6’2” frame. She was the Democrat to his Republican, the more vocal versus his soft-spoken manner, and the driving force behind the success of their immediate family.
Love, praise, and the watchful eye of a woman who was fiercely protective of her family, at times insistent Harper switch jobs when she was afraid the occupation may result in physical injury. Harper obliged these wishes not because of pressure or nagging from Myrtle, but because of his love for her. Actions like these were a testimony to the union the two shared. No one will ever know if it was the hours spent in prayer, but, miraculously, Myrtle was also sparred the pain of having any of her sons drafted into the Korean or Vietnam Wars.
What Myrtle lacked in formal education she made up for in self-instruction and an innate artistic ability that resulted in her tasteful home and appearance. Desire for her own children and family unit to go further in life than her ancestors had spurred Myrtle to make sure they enjoyed luxuries like a television set and occasional trips to the seashore.
However, these personal goals never conflicted with her core values or loyalty to loved ones. Sundays were spent at Evangelical Lutheran church and having dinners of home-made food with James and Beulah, Harper’s mother, Gussie, and any number of siblings and cousins from both sides of the family.
Myrtle was a strong-minded lady who made her way through life with definite poise and purpose. She had a confidence that was derived in part from the fact it did not take her long to grasp the essentials other people’s motivations and where a situation was heading. She also drew confidence from her abilities to work relentlessly on tasks through to their completion.
Although she was conservative and formal, she was not averse to change and as part of her ambitious nature she may have embraced it on the provision that it was a change in the right direction. The material aspects of her life did play a large role and she would have had solace in the knowledge her family was moving up in the world. In an indirect way she would have been uncompromising on decisions that carried weight towards, or away from progress in monetary matters.
Grandson Marc remembered: We visited grandma and grandpa Thompson fairy regularly. Sometimes it was no easy task. We had a few old toys and were expected to remain quiet and in the living room. Occasionally Grandpa could sneak us to his basement work area to see his tools, collections of hardware and wood workings. Once grandma found out, she’d yell “Harp, get those kids back up here!” When she yelled for Grandpa Harp, which she did often, I often thought she was saying “Marc!” and I’d think oh no what did I do now! They did have a TV, but we had to watch their adult shows or sports, which were not what we had wanted. I remember grandpa’s sister Lydia performing in a Kitchen band. She played washboard and they performed locally for “Old Home Week.” Living with grandma and grandpa for a summer, I interned at the nearby Polyclinic Hospital. That summer as a teen, grandma was in charge and rarely spoke to us grandchildren. She did her domestic chores, made dinner and was often seen baking in the late evening. I recall the aroma of home-made desserts, especially chocolates. I realized how important of a man grandpa was, caring, kind, passionate. He accepted all of us as we are, and always gave his best. Every morning I woke up and joined him for a breakfast of Corn flakes, toast and orange juice. When I returned from work, I was given a hot dog and mac and cheese. The couple did not smoke, which was unusual and healthy for the time; however, they did tend to eat the new onslaught of processes foods and a lot of baked goods.
Harper was very persistent, with a fluid mind and a generous nature. Blunt and honest. He had the ability to be diplomatic and could deliver bad news in a pleasing way. He was very emotionally expressive and would have been a good salesman. Had the ability to put himself in other’s shoes, understanding their needs. Harper was an important mentor and role-model for me. Myrtle’s nervous energy made her very guarded towards giving away too much information and it also spurred her on in thought and action and at times put her into ‘go-getter’ mode. Historical thoughts of her complicated family life were countered by her energy and ambition and her determination to out-do her ancestors. Although witty and trustful and jovial in a social context, Myrtle was a private person who was reluctant to invite people in her world. Her good taste would have been evident from the way her home was presented but because her thoughts were so private perhaps few would have realized she also was a highly original character with a lively imagination and innate artistic ability.
Pastor Gregory Harbaugh recollected: Myrtle Thompson’s death came as a big surprise to me. I’m sure that was true for many of you–especially her family. I was called by Vaughn Miller on Monday morning. The family had asked if I would take care of the funeral services. I said I would and asked who died. ‘Myrtle Thompson’, he said. The name didn’t ring a bell. I thought for a while. ‘You took care of her husband’s funeral.’ Thompson. Harper. Myrtle. I was stunned. I sat down. I had visited her Friday and she was fine. We had a good talk. She had been thinking a lot about her mom, her sons and Harper, with Mother’s Day coming up and all. She shared some stories–and told me her doctor said she was fine, but she wanted to lose some weight. She hugged me when I left with the bags she had kept for the Food Pantry. Then on Sunday, I saw Myrtle in church. I was stunned on Monday morning. I liked Myrtle. I will miss her. So will you. A sad Mother’s Day for you–Beulah, Gerry, Gene and Bob–for your families, for friends. A sad day–period. We begin to think of the ‘what ifs’ or the ‘might have beens.’ I know I do. I think: I might have visited Myrtle more often, to talk. She worried a lot. I might have helped. You probably do the same. Perhaps you are somewhat angry–with yourself; with God for taking her; with Myrtle for leaving so suddenly–and on Mother’s Day, no less. Martha was angry with Jesus when Lazarus died. They had called him when their brother became ill. But he had delayed, taken too long. Lazarus died. His friend Jesus–the healer and wonder-worker–had failed him. And Jesus wept. But Martha was angry. Listen to their dialog with some different tones: ‘Jesus, where’ve you been? If you wouldn’t have taken so long, Lazarus wouldn’t have died. So, why don’t you ask God to do something now.’ Jesus replied, ‘Martha, you know Lazarus will rise again.’ ‘Of course, I know that–on the last day.’ But I’m talking about now! Perhaps not. Perhaps Martha was soft and pious in her sorrow. She went out to meet him though. She was aggressive. Perhaps seeking. I suspect angry. And Jesus accepted the confrontation with care and comfort and strength: ‘I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me will live and never die.’ Yet Myrtle is dead. We know that. The story of her life for us has come to a sudden close. All we have left are the memories. Yet, a sudden unexpected death was just like Myrtle. I mean, it fits the story. The time I’ve known Myrtle she’s been loving, but tough. Caring but straight forward and painfully honest. She said what she thought and meant it. I always knew where I stood with Myrtle. And she told me stories of how she handled I ‘her boys’ and how she always told Harper, “You let people use you too much.” “I won’t put up with that!” Fiercely independent and self-assertive. Even abrupt. But caring–sort of the ‘thundering, velvet hand’ of Dan Fogleberg’s song. Myrtle loved her family deeply. And you loved her and remember her. So, we come together wondering, perhaps, ‘where were you Lord?’ Sad, angry, hurt. Yet, we recognize that all of us will die, all of our stories, our biographies will end. Lazarus died. But Jesus called him back ‘that you may come to believe’, he told his disciples. Jesus added a few chapters. And hanged the message. Like the disciples, we look at death as the last reality, the lost fight-of-life, the end. Even when we think in terms of the dead person’s soul going to heaven, we have to face the reality that Myrtle is no longer with us–no more talking or laughing or yelling or threats or love will come from Myrtle. We see death as the end of the story. But the story of Lazarus is a sign for us that the story is not over–’whoever believes in me will never die! That’s the promise of Jesus–the one who died and who now lives. Lazarus would die again. Jesus is risen and returned to the Father–forever. I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me’. Risen. To give us hope–for life, for living. Yes, Myrtle is dead. But we are not. We remember her life, and we will tell stories about her, and we will live with hope that new chapters will yet be added by our Lord who brings life from death. We are alive–to go from here back to our world–home, school, work, play. Having faced death, we can laugh–the laughter of hope and faith in the Lord of life. The laughter of the living. And I remember well that Myrtle really knew how to laugh. I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will never die. Amen.
She may never have learned to drive a car, but Myrtle was happy with her life accomplishments and most proud of her marriage and children. Some of the sophistication Myrtle longed for in childhood was achieved in adulthood. Myrtle watched Harper pass to eternal life in 1981 and followed him there herself in 1983. She lies forever at the Well of Samaria in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Dauphin County, next to her husband. Gerald, the first son born to Myrtle and Harper, is the direct ancestor of the Thompson line.
Born during the First World War, short-lived Prosperity, and the great Depression and Stock Market Crash, they started a family while hearing about Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, the New Deal, the Manhattan Project and feeling the impact of the Holocaust and World War II. As they aged in Postwar America, experiencing a second Prosperity, the Marshal Plan, President Eisenhower, Rosa Parks, and retiring around the time of the Korean and Cold Wars, John F. Kennedy and the Space Race. Our ancestors have persisted through god and bad times, succeeding and giving us our opportunity!