Of all the Juniata College degrees presented during today’s 141st commencement ceremony, perhaps no recipient will be has humbled as Huntingdon resident Harriet Kaylor.
A retired educator, Kaylor will will receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.
“I still can’t believe it,” she said of her reaction to the honor. “I really can’t. It’s like a dream.”
Kaylor’s family, including her husband, Earl, will join her for today’s ceremony. They, and anyone who knows Kaylor, can assure her it’s not a dream, but the result of many years of giving back and making a difference in many lives.
Kaylor has held leadership positions in regional and national teachers’ associations, served as an instructor at Juniata and was named to the Standards and Practices Commission under the state Department of Education in 1984. She was also an avid visitor to Pennsylvania State Correctional Institutes, where she supervised Juniata students’ internships and earned recognition for her volunteerism from the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
Kaylor graduated magna cum laude from Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana, in 1951 with a bachelor’s degree in history and English and a teaching certificate to teach history and English on the secondary level in the state of Indiana. She completed her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction in 1977 and her doctorate in the same subject in 1980, both from the Pennsylvania State University.
Since the early 1950s, Kaylor has served as an elementary classroom teacher in South Bend, Ind., a health and physical education teacher in Johnstown, an instructional assistant in the Juniata Writing Program, an elementary teacher in Petersburg, a middle school social studies teacher in Huntingdon and a social studies teacher in Huntingdon, where she also chaired a department. She furthermore supervised a Reading Across the Curriculum grant at the Tuscarora Intermediate Unit which connected teachers in Mifflin, Juniata and Huntingdon counties.
“The students I taught were very well behaved kids,” she recalled. They were wonderful.”
Kaylor believes teachers today have greater challenges.
“I think there have been a lot of changes since I was in the classroom. That was 26 years ago,” she said. “There are a lot of other pressures today. Teachers are expected to also be social workers.”
Kaylor also held leadership roles in teachers’ unions at the local level in 1973 and 1974. In 1975, she was elected to the executive committee of the central region of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), a role in which she served for more than six years before becoming vice president of the same regional organization. In 1984, Kaylor was named to the Standards and Practices Commission under the state Department of Education by Gov. Dick Thornburg, based on a recommendation by state Rep. Sam Hayes, Jr. During her work on this commission, Kaylor continued to serve the central region chapter of PSEA and added service on the instruction and professional development, intergroup relations and international committees. She was awarded recognition by the intergroup relations committee in 1984.
In 1977, PSEA recommended Kaylor be trained by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) to become a member of the Board of Examiners, the only national accrediting agency at that time. In 1980, Kaylor began serving as a central region delegate to the National Education Association. Meanwhile, she continued to serve NCATE and completed 22 onsite visits to departments of teacher education in colleges and universities across the U.S.
“I went from Washington state to South Carolina and from Maine to Alabama. It was a real privilege and a challenge,” said Kaylor, who chaired the last four visits by herself. “Here I was, not a college professor, going in to their colleges and university and asking ll sorts of questions and sending their recommendations to NCATE whether they should be accredited or not.”
After her retirement from her career as a teacher, Kaylor began visiting Smithfield and Huntingdon State Correctional Institutes (SCI) as an official visitor with Pennsylvania Prison Society. From 1992 through 2018, she met regularly with the board of directors of the Pennsylvania Lifers Association at SCI Huntingdon, and added visits to SCI facilities in Coal Township and Rockview in addition to the Huntingdon County Jail. During this term, she served as the convener of the Huntingdon County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
Kaylor started her prison work after an invitation from her mentor Jane Crosby, but she was drawn to the work for other reasons, too.
“I was drawn to the (inmates),” said Kaylor, who was born in Nigeria. “That’s part of the diversity in me. And besides, I go to church and I read the Bible. If we have the words of Jesus right, the Biblical challenge is to do for other people, including prisoners.”
Although she is no longer active in prison visits, Kaylor continues to respond to new requests from prisoners.
“I answer the first letter,” she said.
Kaylor said she misses her interactions with the life inmates at SCI Huntingdon.
“I’ve been in sessions with them where I was just astounded at their astuteness and intelligence,” she said. “Not every group is like this particular group of men, but I’ve had tears in my eyes more than once because of what they said. I’d go away from them feeling inspired.”
In addition to volunteering inside correctional institutes, Kaylor shared her learning with those outside by organizing community conversations around justice for people in the Huntingdon community in 2011 and by organizing a luncheon to celebrate the 225th anniversary of Pennsylvania Prison Society in 2012. In 1995, Kaylor was recognized as Visitor of the Year by the Pennsylvania Prison Society. And, in 2017, her service was recognized by the Juniata College Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.
“I could hold my two fingers together and say there’s this much difference between me and the guys in prison,” she said. “It may seem like a way-out statement, but there just isn’t that much difference. I’ve had so much opportunity that they haven’t had. I’ve had good models they haven’t had. But, they were very kind to me.”
And just as she’s been humbled by her work over the years, she’s just as humbled by today’s honor.
“It’s very humbling,” she said. “And, quite an honor.”
Becky can be reached at email@example.com.