Harper’s hometown approach harkens back to his roots
On the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month, he borrows his old office in Bondurant Hall to meet with students who have applied to the University’s medical school.
Earlier this month, a student turned the tables on him. “Why did you apply to medical school here?” she asked.
The answer, he said, went back to his dad. Way back, to the turn of another century.
His father was about to turn 17 in fall 1901 when he left his home in Snow Hill to start medical school at Carolina. He finished in two years – “which was how long the program was then,” Harper said – before setting off for Philadelphia to begin his internship.
After completing all his requirements, his father returned home to Snow Hill in spring 1905 to become the “horse and buggy” doctor he was meant to be.
“When he got home, he had to wait six months to set up his practice because he had to turn 21 before he could take the state board examination,” Harper said.
His dad had to wait much longer than that to take a wife.
“His mother did not want him to marry, and in those days, you did exactly what your mother told you,” Harper said. “So he had to wait until his mother died.”
Harper’s father was in his 40s when he married a nurse half his age. Their first child was a girl. Harper was born in 1934, the same year his father turned 50.
Harper knew his father only 16 years before he died after suffering several heart attacks. “I didn’t have him for long, but we had a great relationship and I learned a lot from him just from being around him,” he said.
They were both great baseball fans because Snow Hill was the smallest town in the country that had an organized baseball team. The town had no hotel so all the players on the Class D Eastern Carolina League team bunked in people’s homes for the season.
“I grew up in rural America and I was a Tom Sawyer,” Harper said. “My shoes came off when school ended in May.”
Like Tom, he spent his summers swimming, fishing and skinny-dipping in the creek. And like Tom, he faced some unwelcome chores: His included working in his father’s tobacco fields until the summer of 1950, the year his father died.
By then, he was halfway through the military academy he attended during high school, and already knew he would be following his father’s footsteps to Chapel Hill.
‘It was all in the stars’
Coming to Carolina to become a doctor like his father was not as much a decision Harper made as it was part of his destiny. “It was all in the stars,” he said.
When he arrived in Chapel Hill in 1952, part of home was waiting to greet him. “I had the good fortune of rooming with my first cousin, who was a year ahead of me,” he said, “and our roommate was another fellow from back home named Bill McCoy.”
McCoy would become the first of many chancellors Harper would get to know over the years after he started his private practice in internal medicine and cardiology.
Harper earned his bachelor’s degree in European history and got married in 1956 before completing his medical degree at Carolina four years later. While he was in post-graduate training at the University of Florida in 1961, he received a letter telling him to report to Fort Benning, Ga.
“I had been drafted,” Harper said.
At it happened, he had already applied to the Public Health Service, so he ended up becoming a public health service fellow at Vanderbilt University instead. At the same time, he was appointed the director of heart programs throughout the state of Tennessee.
After his service ended in December 1963, Harper returned to North Carolina to finish his post-graduate training – first at Carolina and then Duke – and on July 1, 1967, he accepted a part-time position as a clinical professor in the UNC School of Medicine at the same time he began private practice in internal medicine and cardiology in Chapel Hill.
He had a foot in both worlds, which he liked because he believed it made him better in both.
“I was looked upon by my students as a member of the real world, and I could teach them some of the things that you can only learn from being a doctor in private practice, from the management of patients to dealing with families in crisis,” Harper said.
Among his proudest achievements was developing the first cardiac rehabilitation program in Chapel Hill in the mid-1970s. The program continues today at Meadowmont.
In 1989, Harper had a heart attack that slowed him down and led to his decision two years later to retire from private practice and accept a fulltime faculty position in Cardiac Outpatient Services and become co-director of the EKG Lab. In 1999, he was appointed associate dean of the medical school and director of Medical Alumni Affairs – the position he held until he retired last summer.
The culmination of a career
Over the years, Harper came to understand that he had become a hometown doctor just as his father had – but his hometown became Chapel Hill.
He ended up looking after some of his old professors and several chancellors, including Robert House, Ferebee Taylor and Paul Hardin, as well as UNC President William Friday.
Because of his continuous service in many different capacities, Harper touched the lives of generations of Tar Heels who were lucky enough to be counted among his patients, colleagues, students and friends.
One such fellow was Jim Knight, who on Sept. 27, 1997, suffered a heart attack while refereeing the Carolina-Virginia football game.
Harper happened to be in the stands at Kenan Stadium that day – and on call. The two men met in the emergency room, although Knight wouldn’t remember it.
“That happened on a Saturday and he didn’t wake up until Wednesday,” Harper said. “But he got to wake up. And he got to see both of his children grow up and marry. And he got to see his grandchildren.
“I’ve seen him several times since then and every time it’s like a reunion.”
Harper always reminds Knight that he still has the coin Knight gave him – the one he flipped at the start of that fateful game. Knight usually gave the coin to the captain of the winning team. When he gave it to Harper, he told him, “You were the captain of my winning team that day.”
Harper has treasured that coin the same way he treasures the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award and the $7,500 check he received this past spring.
“It is ironic that I know Knox Massey, who is the son of the originator of the award,” Harper said. “He was a couple years behind me in college.
“One of my comments during the awards banquet was, ‘I know that Knox, back when we were classmates, would have had no idea he would be supplementing my retirement.’”