Remembering Harry Stevens

Published 11:31 am Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Harry Stevens chats with his wife, Joann, right, and movie star Shirley MacLaine decades ago at a democratic meeting. Stevens, 77, lived in Austin for more than 20 years. A memorial service will be held for him at 2 p.m. this Saturday at Clasen-Jordan Mortuary. — Photo provided

Service set for 20-year Austin resident, businessman, activist

Most people can describe their careers in one sentence. Chandler “Harry” Stevens, however, couldn’t do that in an entire conversation.

“You could talk to him for an hour and still not know what he did for a living,” said Harry’s daughter, Emily Stevens.

Friends and family members will gather this weekend for Harry’s memorial service at 2 p.m. Saturday at Clasen-Jordan Mortuary in Austin.

Stevens at his daughter's wedding in 1993.

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Harry, an Austin resident from 1990 to 2010, died Feb. 1 in St. Paul from the effects of Parkinson’s disease. He was 77.

Harry, who was born Jan. 3, 1935, in Trenton, N.J., was a Massachusetts legislator, former Air Force officer and computer programmer at the Pentagon, Peace Corps volunteer, science adviser, instructor, international speaker, entrepreneur and even musician and dancer.

Harry’s daughter, Maria, remembered what it was like in elementary school when children described their parents’ careers, such as doctors, lawyers, mechanics and so on. She wasn’t quite sure what her father did.

“My dad works on the third floor of my house and owns a company, and I don’t really know what they do,” Maria said.

Harry — a graduate of the famous Quaker boarding school in Newtown, Penn., George School, and a Georgia Tech graduate who later earned his PhD in economics from MIT — was always interested in connecting people. He started his own company, Participation Systems Inc., which specialized in computer conferencing software. Harry believed the world would be connected by computers, which he told his wife and daughters.

“He always talked about the global village when I was a kid,” Emily said, who decades ago comprehended that statement just as poorly as the rest. Even Joann sometimes doubted Harry’s technological visions. But Harry was influential — even in bringing the Internet to Austin, advocating for it through Riverland Community College. Harry and Joann also raised thousands of dollars for the Paramount Theatre over the years, and both received the Jefferson Award in 2007 for outstanding public service in Austin. People often used the words futurist and visionary to describe Harry, but more than anything, he persevered — the word Joann and Maria blurted almost simultaneously while trying to describe Harry.

“He was never afraid to try new things,” Maria said, “… and he would not take no for an answer.”

That statement held true into Harry’s later years. Peace Corps officials questioned Harry’s eyesight and ability to serve in the Ukraine from 1999 to 2001, Joann said, but he served. Others wondered why he wanted to help the relief efforts in Katrina in 2005 — as he had Parkinson’s disease — but he helped.

“He didn’t want the disease to define him, and he certainly didn’t want that to stop him from doing anything,” Emily said.

People noticed that Harry had a legitimate interest in what others were doing, and he genuinely cared about issues, not politics, Emily added. Emily and Maria are still learning about their father, whose political career was likely more well-documented than any of his other accomplishments.

“I found in the basement these scrapbooks that I’ve never seen,” Emily said. “And it’s all his press from when he served in the Massachusetts state legislature. He got so much press coverage, and my sister and I are still reading these articles.”

“If I were reading this about someone else’s father, I might not believe it,” Maria added.

Harry’s political career concluded when he was a Minnesota delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Despite his accomplishments, he always seemed to be more eager for his next venture.

“He was always happiest when he embarked on some new adventure, some cause,” Joann said.

Maria said people ask about the best advice Harry ever gave. But she simply points to the way Harry led his life, and led by example.