At the age of 99, retired Baylor School math teacher and administrator Bryce Harris has seen plenty of history in his life.
Even when he was much younger, though, he was already witnessing many important developments first hand through his Navy intelligence work during World War II, his interim position as headmaster at Baylor, and his work helping write the math portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
As Mr. Harris happily and openly reminisced recently from his Signal Mountain residence he shares with his wife, Josephine “Betty,” who has already beaten him to age 100, he appeared to have been slowed little. His mind still seemed sharp, and perhaps only a slight hearing impairment would keep him from going back into a math classroom and taking up where he left off when he retired in 1977.
In other words, he is still impressing people with his ability to handle numbers – particularly figures related to his age.
The son of a schoolteacher who taught in the Lebanon and Gallatin areas of Middle Tennessee, Mr. Harris came to Baylor in 1938. Many later Baylor alumni may not realize that he actually had an older brother, Thomas F. Harris, who taught English at Baylor and was the head tennis coach.
“He stayed until the war,” Mr. Harris said. “He was drafted and so was I. But he didn’t come back. He taught at Cumberland University. He and my sister both taught English there.”
Mr. Harris has not forgotten interviewing for the Baylor job with the late headmaster Herb Barks Sr. – while a very young Herb Barks Jr. was also in the room.
“I was in Dr. Barks’ office and here came this little 2½-year-old and we couldn’t get in a word,” Mr. Harris remembered with a laugh. “I liked Dr. Barks Sr. very much.”
Mr. Harris may not have realized that one day he would occupy that office briefly. But first he had to go serve in an office for Uncle Sam.
During World War II, he and another man studied Japanese anti-aircraft operations and tried to figure out how American pilots could fly into and out of enemy areas with the least amount of danger. But while this work dealt with others having to be put in harm’s way, he was not, as the assignment – of which he was very proud -- was in Washington, D.C.
“A gun was never pointed at me, and I never pointed a gun at anybody,” he said with a laugh. “I fought probably the safest war on record.”
But he was struck with an arrow of the Cupid variety while there. Through an acquaintance where he lived, he met his future wife, who was from Philadelphia. They had one son, David, who went on to be the Baylor valedictorian in 1966 and became a longtime Baylor teacher before announcing his plans to retire this year.
After the war, the elder Mr. Harris continued teaching at Baylor, helping with the tennis program as he had for years. He enjoyed working with his brother and coach Jerry Evert, who built up the program along with Sonny Sumner.
He also enjoyed helping coach the tennis players, and is saddened that former star player Roscoe Tanner, who went on to become a Wimbledon finalist in 1979, later had legal problems that were splashed across newspaper headlines.
“There wasn’t any finer kid than he,” Mr. Harris said. “I couldn’t understand that.”
Mr. Harris also helped with other sports, including pole-vaulting in track and officiating soccer games.
But it was with his academic and administrative skills where he left his biggest legacy at Baylor. He became such a respected math teacher that he was the only non-college professor to serve on the College Board committee that wrote the math part of the SAT college entrance tests.
He remembered having to travel regularly to meetings. Some were up in the Princeton, N.J., area and he recalled wishing he could meet the famous scientist Albert Einstein, who lived in the area.
“I never met Einstein,” he said with disappointment. “I knew where he lived and I’d drive by his house. I saw him in the yard often. I would have loved to have met him.”
But he did get to meet quite a few people when he was suddenly asked to serve as interim headmaster in 1970 to replace Charles Hawkins.
“I had to serve as headmaster because the headmaster got fired just before school started,” he said.
In his new job, Mr. Harris talked regularly with Coca-Cola bottler and philanthropist Jack Lupton, who had just become chairman of the school’s board of trustees.
Much went on during this time, including Baylor’s dropping of the military curriculum, but Mr. Harris said he did not care for the stress of the job and wanted to get back to being a regular teacher as soon as possible. Herb Barks Jr. was eventually hired, and he went on to serve until 1988.
“I was offered the head job and I told them I wouldn’t have this at any salary,” said Mr. Harris.
But Mr. Harris, who spent part of his retirement living in the Gatlinburg area where he had bought some land, is very proud of his time he spent at Baylor overall.
“I worked with people I liked, people I enjoyed,” he said.