Hermiston’s first city manager, Tom Harper, died June 11 at the age of 96. He was one of the final living members of a generation of city leaders who helped move Hermiston from a small town with few paved roads to the largest city in Eastern Oregon.
“It’s the passing of an era,” Beverly Harkenrider said.
Harkenrider’s husband Frank Harkenrider, who served as mayor of Hermiston for 10 years and a city councilor for 40, frequently said before his death that hiring Harper as Hermiston’s first city manager was the best decision he and the council ever made.
Harper served as city manager for 26 years, from 1961 to 1987, after the city council decided Hermiston had grown large enough to need a full-time manager outside of the mayor.
At the time Harper was hired, Hermiston had about 4,000 residents. Under his management the city built a library, public works building, wastewater treatment plant, opened a new city hall and built the public safety building that houses the police and fire departments. The city paved miles of road, purchased the land that now houses the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center, created the Hermiston Cemetery District and put together the master plan that charted the course for its fledgling municipal airport.
Harper was an original member of the Hermiston Development Corporation, the first nonprofit development corporation in Oregon. The group was instrumental in recruiting many of the city’s largest employers, including Lamb Weston, Hermiston Foods and the Wal-Mart Distribution Center.
Current city manager Byron Smith — one of only four city managers in Hermiston’s history thanks to the tradition of longevity that Harper set — said Harper’s work laid a strong foundation for the community.
“He did a great job getting the city ready for the growth we are experiencing,” Smith said.
A plaque at city hall honors Harper for “his distinguished service and dedication to the City of Hermiston and its citizens.”
Beverly Harkenrider said her husband and Harper were different in a lot of ways — Frank was famously outspoken while the city manager was quietly diplomatic — but the two of them worked well together along with people like Joe Burns, Russ Dorran and Charlie Kik for the betterment of Hermiston.
“So many of them have gone now,” she said.
Harper stayed in Hermiston after his retirement and always followed Hermiston politics closely, looking up city council agendas and writing the occasional letter to the editor into his nineties.
“When he retired, someone asked if he would move, and he said, ‘I spent 25 years trying to make this a good place to live. Why would I move now?’” Harkenrider said.
She remembered Harper as a good friend and a good person, as did many who reacted to his passing on social media.
A celebration of life will be 11 a.m. on June 29 at Burns Mortuary.