Pat Harris, who was Lodge Porter here from 1 September 1997 to 30 September 30 2008, has died. Here, Aaron Maniam (1998, PPE), and below, deputy lodge manager Julian Smith, pay tribute to her. Pat is commemorated here with the Pat Harris Spirit of Somerville Award, celebrating depth of character and kindness. To support the award, please visit our crowdfunding project.
One of my former teachers reminded me recently of two Philip Larkin poems. The first, “The Mower”, contains these immortal lines:
“The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.”
These words echo for me now that Pat has passed away, after a long battle with cancer. Her “new absence” is palpable and haunting, especially as I walk past Somerville nearly every day, on my way to and from my flat in Oxford.
But much more importantly, I am reminded how much Pat epitomised the idea that “we should be kind”. She was that rarity in 1990s Oxford; a woman amongst mostly male porters, in a previously women’s-only college that had started to admit men in 1994. She made College a home for everyone, student and faculty alike. Every December, without fail, at a time when email – let alone Wifi! – was less universal, we would find little slips of paper in our pigeonholes, painstakingly typed with one of Pat’s original rhyming couplets, wishing us a happy Christmas.
She was kind and firm – often simultaneously! Once, I set off a fire alarm (clearly a rite of passage for any undergraduate) while some friends and I were cooking rice and curry. Pat stormed into our house on 121 Walton St, rightly angry that none of us had bothered to leave the building despite the bell blaring in the background. But after she scolded us, her lips twitched more than slightly as she looked at the food and said, “That does smell nice, doesn’t it?”
I was lucky to develop a deep friendship with Pat beyond Somerville. We stayed in touch, including on Facebook. Even my family are among her Facebook friends! She never met my niece Amelia or nephew Aidan, but I know she loved them dearly. She commented regularly on photos of them – including some of Aidan’s first steps, just 20 hours before she passed away.
I last saw Pat in June 2018, when she met the first two recipients of the “Pat Harris Spirit of Somerville Award”, started by Somerville to recognise the values she exemplified: depth of character, kindness, and a regard for others. It was wonderful to see her sharing her deep, practical wisdom with Aleksandra Rutkowska and Emily Louise – two fine inaugural recipients. While I am sad that she won’t get to meet future recipients, since she left us I have said multiple quiet prayers of gratitude that the award was started, “while there (was) still time”.
The other poem floating in my mind is “Compline”, named after the night prayer in the Christian liturgy of the hours.
“Lives flicker out, one here, one there,
To send some weeping down the stair
With love unused, in unsaid words”
It’s hard to think of Pat’s life flickering out. Even in the grip of grief, of absence new and old, there is also a deep sense of a life lived abundantly and joyously in the service of others. There is sadness, but also a sense of blessing from having known her. The only kind of flickering that might apply here is that envisaged by another poet, Rabindranath Tagore: “Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.”
Unlike Larkin, I am thankful for all the love Pat used, all the words she said – to, with, for so many. The world was better because she was here.
And if there are fire alarms in heaven, I hope the angels know what they have coming!
Pat Harris introduced herself with a firm handshake and in a loud, confident voice said: “Hello, I am Pat – I will treat all students firm but fair”
She took pride in, and would make it her business to learn not just the names of as many staff and students of Somerville as she could, but also what they taught or were reading, she would also find out – by asking them – snippets of their personal life.
She was known to give chase, and catch cyclists who dared to cycle in college grounds on her watch. She broke her leg playing football with students when she was 63.
In short, a former student who asked after her recently described her as ‘a legend’.