Andrea Harris was a true renaissance woman - creative, strong, smart, funny, perceptive, hard working, talented and loving.
By Bart Harris
Andrea was born in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania in 1947 and began her first career as a teen fashion model in Pittsburgh. Several years later, after graduating from Montour High School, she moved to Chicago where she met her husband to be, a fashion photographer. She modeled for me and for other more notable photographers such as Victor Skrebneski. To help satisfy her desire for exercise, Andrea began taking yoga classes and soon she became a yoga instructor. She found teaching subjects which interested her more rewarding then simply being a student. This became a habit which defined her life.
Andrea spent a brief stint as a photo stylist after marrying me three months after we met. The styling experience combined with her learning to make her own clothes from a very young age, led her to a third career as a clothing designer. Andrea created custom men's sport coats as well as women's custom dresses. In 1976, Andrea was commissioned by the daughter of the owner of a shop that represented Andrea as a clothing designer, to make a custom leather sport coat for her college roommate's father. The roommate was Susan Ford and her dad was President Gerald R. Ford. Two years later, as a locally recognized up and coming clothing designer, she had a line of women's dresses named "Andrea" sold by both Marshall Field and Company and Carson Pirie Scott.
Andrea was now in her late twenties. That's when her competitive juices were set on fire. Laurie Rossi, who soon became Andrea's closest friend, met Andrea by chance when Laurie's eight year old daughter worked for me as a model in a McDonald's magazine ad. Andrea had just tried jogging to get a better burn then she got from yoga. Laurie had also recently begun to jog and after meeting and learning they shared this a new passion for running they began jogging together, something not many young mothers did in 1975. Encouraged by a third new friend and runner, Erma Tranter, the three women decided to try a full, 26.2 mile marathon with no true distance running training. Andrea eventually completed more then 18 marathons, winning her age group in a few and building a reputation as a good, local distance runner. Andrea and Erma did something quite difficult for men and women both: they broke the three hour barrier for the marathon.
Through her involvement with running, Andrea became a part-owner and the general manager of a running store in Evanston, Illinois. In 1979 Andrea's interest in sports led her to answer an ad in Runner's World Magazine to enter a competition to select the Illinois representative to carry the Olympic Flame 1,000 miles—from Virginia to Lake Placid, to open the 1980 Olympic Winter Games, and act as a special escort during the Games. Andrea was chosen from thousands of applicants to be one of fifty-two runners chosen from each state, Washington DC and Lake Placid to carry the torch. This was a life-altering event in our lives. As her dear friend Gene Duetscher, who represented Texas in the relay, told the Chicago Tribune feature writer, Graydon Megan, who quoted Gene in a beautiful feature article he wrote about Andrea after her death: "She was just a bright shining light in all of our lives." Andrea had a glow about her that was a combination of her self-confidence and her growing compassion for all she met.
About a year after the Olympic experience, Andrea began a fifteen year career as a manufacturer's representative selling athletic shoes for Adidas, then LA Gear and finally for Reebok. At the age of 36, after repeated overuse injuries sustained by her constant training to run in a variety of distance races, Andrea began cross-training as a serious, competitive bicycle racer. She actually qualified, at the ripe old age of forty, to participate in the 1988 U.S. Olympic trials in three different distances in track bicycle racing. She competed in Houston, Texas against women less than half her age.
Andrea was 52 when she took a drawing class at the Art Institute of Chicago. This began as an attempt to relieve stress at work brought on by the increasing pressure to dramatically increase sales at Reebok. Andrea had been talking about refining her drawing skills. Her natural drawing ability was awesome and the first class evolved into Andrea's completion of a two year certificate of drawing program. She attended evening and weekend classes while working sixty hours a week as a manufacturer's rep, running and bicycling, and being a mother and wife for her family. She was also a contributing sports writer for a bimonthly publication in Chicago—Windy City Sports. After getting her Certificate of Drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Andrea took an additional class in oil painting at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago and Andrea discovered her true life's work. She was a marvelous artist. Click here to view examples of Andrea's art.
Andrea's love of nature showed itself her paintings, and through her art she also spent time as a environmental lecturer and as a mentor to 5th through 8th grade students by creating a nature tour and accompanying painting classes which she conceived and taught for the Lake County School District.
In early 2015 she noticed a couple of symptoms that at first seemed innocuous but persisted. It was cancer, and unfortunately, an aggressive form of ovarian cancer. As Mr. Megan wrote in his tribute to Andrea: "Erma Tranter said the same determination that carried Harris to success in sports and art was evident in her fight against cancer. She was determined to live her life and to live it fully."
Of all her accomplishments, her impact on the art community was almost immediate and the lifetime spent learning all her life lessons came to bear fruit on her canvases. This passion to paint and the unwavering love and support of her family, friends and healthcare specialists remained in part the source of her great strength, but much of the way she handled the battle with her illness was her confidence in herself and her faith. While she was passionate to her core regarding all her pursuits in life, her proudest accomplishments were her children Aaron and Joel, and Dylan, the true love of her life, her grandson. That and the knowledge that she had dedicated her life to trying to make a positive difference in the world around her.
This tribute to my wife Andrea does not really describe the accomplishments she achieved in her all too brief life. Nor does it truly illustrate her compassion, her pursuit of art, or her ability to make people aware of our beautiful environment through her art. Andrea did so many little things. For example her running accomplishments included assembling 10 local female distance runners for two assaults on the women's 24 hour relay record. Her team ultimately broke an existing record to be listed for years as the world record holders in the Guinness Book of World Records. Andrea was a true renaissance woman, smart, funny, perceptive, beautiful, selfless and one of the strongest people I have ever known.
Her final battle was a two year war waged against ovarian cancer which began in her fallopian tubes. In those two years she endured numerous rounds of chemotherapy, surgery and an unsuccessful clinical trial. The most difficult and debilitating challenges were side effects of the cancer, crippling neuropathy in her feet, bowel blockage, terrible acid reflux, weight loss and having to endure leaking abdominal wall tubes, a liquid diet for her last six months, a loss of her sense of balance, a variety of minor surgeries to place and replace abdominal tubes, stents in her ureters, a variety of CT scans, a couple of heart procedures, several hospital stays, two months of home hospice and the terrible time spent knowing the end was near. But it never bowed her indomitable spirit and love for others. She never once complained…not one time. But she was concerned that her family was okay and that her friends were not suffering for her. Andrea Harris was an artist, an athlete of uncommon courage, speed and strength, a wonderful mother and grandmother and the most amazing wife and partner I could have ever imagined.