After more than 42 years of sharing her passion for education with students and faculty at Augusta University, Dr. Paulette Harris was the longest tenured professor on the Summerville Campus up until her death this spring at age 71.
Born and raised in Augusta, Harris graduated from Augusta College in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in education and French. She went on to receive a master’s degree from Augusta College and earned her Doctorate with Honors from the University of South Carolina in 1983.
But her deep love and devotion to the Augusta community kept her in Richmond County, where she spent seven years in the school system serving as a Title 1 reading specialist, lead teacher and assistant principal.
In 1978, Harris began her career at Augusta College, moving through the ranks in the College of Education with positions such as instructor, assistant professor, associate professor, coordinator, director, interim dean and professor of education.
“Honestly, I’ve never known anyone who worked as hard as she did,” said Dr. Judi Wilson, dean of the College of Education at Augusta University. “She didn’t see it as a job. It was an absolute calling for her and she gave it her all. She had a true servant’s heart in every sense of the word.”
In 1990, Harris became the founder and director of the Augusta University Literacy Center. For more than 30 years, both children and adults learned to read through a nationally acclaimed reading program facilitated by Harris.
“The literacy center began with just a few adult students that she was tutoring, but that soon expanded to children,” Wilson said. “But her heart’s cry was always to make sure that literacy tutoring was free for everyone. She did everything within her power to ensure that she had the financial means to support free tutoring for every child and adult who sought the tutoring. She also worked hard to protect the identity of everyone, especially the adults, that were going to be tutored.”
Harris helped thousands of people across the Augusta area to learn to read, Wilson said.
“She really did respect the individuals who came looking for help and respected their need for anonymity,” Wilson said. “She created a safe space for them to go because she knew it takes a brave person to admit, ‘I don’t know how to read.’
“But she wasn’t just committed to teaching people how to read, but also teaching students how to read better so they’d do better in school. She wanted their academic achievements to be strengthened and heightened, so that it would hopefully launch students into post-secondary work or education.”
Eventually, the Augusta University Literacy Center was named a National Exemplary Model by the National Reading Styles Institute, one of the nation’s leading research-based educational organizations dedicated to improving literacy.
For years, Harris worked hard with Dr. Zach Kelehear, the former dean of the College of Education and the current vice provost for instruction at Augusta University, to find the perfect location for the literacy center, Wilson said.
Harris was part of the “quiet planning team” for the future location of the literacy center in the Harrisburg community on the corner of Fenwick Street and Chafee Avenue, across from the future home of the Boys & Girls Club of the CSRA, Wilson said.
Two weeks before Harris passed away, Wilson was also able to share with her some wonderful news about plans to honor her at the new literacy center.
“One of the best gifts that I’ve gotten as a dean is about two weeks before she passed away. I was able to meet with Dr. Harris and not only just talk about the literacy center and the legacy that she’s leaving for that center, but also how we plan to name one of the rooms in the new literacy center after her,” Wilson said. “We plan to put up a picture of her along with a plaque talking about the legacy that she is leaving behind for the literacy center, because if it weren’t for Dr. Harris, there wouldn’t be a literacy center.”
This past April, a coalition led by the Community Foundation for the CSRA, the Boys & Girls Clubs of the CSRA and the Medical College of Georgia Foundation broke ground on a new project called the HUB for Community Innovation, which is designed to help revitalize the historic Harrisburg and Laney-Walker neighborhoods.
The larger of the two buildings included in the HUB will be a 33,000-square-foot facility on the western side of Chafee Avenue. It will house four locally based nonprofits, including the Augusta University Literacy Center, Wilson said.
“With this new building, her legacy will live on for years and years,” Wilson said. “I feel a huge sense of responsibility to, not only make sure that we build on the foundation that she created, but that we even take it to the next level in honoring her and her life’s work.”
The other three nonprofits that will be located in the larger HUB building will include Augusta Locally Grown, which is dedicated to growing the local food community and promoting public health through farmers’ markets, community gardens and educational programming; Harrisburg Family Health Care, which provides free medical care to more than 3,000 uninsured and under-insured Augusta area residents annually; and RISE Augusta, which links community resources, literacy remediation, mentoring and basic needs services to struggling children and their families.
The second building across the street on Chafee Avenue will be a new headquarters and support center for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the CSRA, which is in its 70th year of service to the Augusta area.
The design and construction of both buildings is being funded through a combination of federal grants and private contributions, including a $10 million donation announced by Augusta National Golf Club in November 2020 and gifted jointly with AT&T, Bank of America and IBM.
Both of the HUB campus buildings are expected to be completed and operational by the spring of 2022.
“We want to encourage innovative, collaborative approaches for revitalizing Harrisburg and Laney-Walker. By bringing existing resources and nonprofits together in one location, we can start to bolster equitable access to all the essential elements of a thriving community,” Shell Berry, CEO of the Community Foundation for the CSRA and a co-leader of the project, announced at the groundbreaking in April. “Eventually that includes mixed-income housing, a variety of food sources, quality health care and educational support.
“The HUB for Community Innovation is the first step in making these services more easily accessible and affordable for everyone living in these historic neighborhoods.”
Wilson said she wishes Harris could have seen the completion of the project and the positive influence it will have on these neighborhoods in Augusta.
“I think the impact the HUB can have is just limitless,” Wilson said. “I know it will make Paulette extremely proud. She was an excellent educator, outstanding leader, a gifted philanthropist and she was just so committed to the College of Education and the institution itself. And she loved this community.
“She was so well respected that she could have gone anywhere. But she chose to stay at Augusta University. She was a true pioneer for the advocacy of literacy in this community. We deeply miss her, but her legacy will live on.”