In Depth

SPJ's Harper Leaves Laughs in His Wake

By Elizabeth Jensen

He never worked as a professional journalist, but Terry Harper, the executive director of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, knew how to write laugh-out-loud prose that could also bring a reader of his blog to tears.

His many friends and colleagues got a last installment of his humor on June 2, the day he died from a brain tumor, when his wife posthumously posted his farewell blog entry, written months ahead of time. The entry amusingly used every possible cliché for death before concluding, “I have no idea what lies beyond. I do know that if love transcends the boundaries of life and space and time, I have amassed more than enough to carry me safely to my next destination.”

“For a guy who wasn’t a journalist, he was a terrific writer,” said Dave Aeikens, SPJ’s national president.

Harper, who was 45, had been SPJ’s executive director for seven years, during two of which he was also battling the cancer. His survivors include his wife, Lee Ann, and sons Dale and Jace.
Harper told colleagues his first paying job was in journalism, as a paperboy in his Yukon, Okla., hometown, said Joe Skeel, SPJ’s interim co-executive director.

A 1986 graduate of Oklahoma State University, Harper spent 19 years managing nonprofit associations. He served as executive director of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity from 1990-99, advised nonprofits on investing from 1999-2001 while at UBS PaineWebber, and served as director of fund-raising for the Kiwanis International Foundation before joining SPJ and the SDX Foundation.

When Harper arrived at SPJ in 2002, “we were in some pretty tough shape, financially,” said Aeikens, with hefty deficits. “He came in and put a professional face on us.” The organization now has budget reserves, he added.

A particular focus was setting up professional development programs for newsrooms, Skeel said. “He was very much passionate about new media. One of his key pushes was training our members for the future so they didn’t lag behind.”

Few nonprofit association executives are in their field to get rich, Skeel added. While Harper wasn’t a journalist, “The thing that made Terry so great for the job was that he had a strong passion for what SPJ is,” Skeel said.

After a Viking-style funeral service at an Indiana lake and a “rip-roaring” party that honored Harper with karaoke and Maker’s Mark bourbon, his colleagues are now working on a memorial to be announced at the August convention. What form it will take isn’t finalized, but proceeds from SPJ’s annual convention auction, which in most years goes to its legal defense fund, will this year be given to the memorial fund, Skeel said.