HOMER CITY — She was known as a watchdog of tax dollars, an advocate for a fresh-looking downtown and an emotional defender of a landmark bank building on Homer City’s Main Street.
Bernice Harris, who yielded to a cancer diagnosis at age 91 and retired three years ago from the Homer City borough council, passed away Friday at Indiana Regional Medical Center.
Harris had served 22 years and as the council’s senior member had earned the affection of her colleagues and borough officials.
“Aunt Bea” was the nickname folks gave her, in a nod to her inviting nature and her mantra of service.
But Harris balanced her easy-going demeanor with a no-nonsense approach to the business of making Homer City a better place.
“One of the things people don’t really know is that Bea was very instrumental in getting Phase I and Phase II of our Main Street project going,” Borough Manager Rob Nymick recalled Wednesday. As the newly hired manager 16 years ago, Nymick said, Harris put the cleanup of Main Street at the top of his priority list.
“She worked with us in developing the plans and deciding how we wanted things to go. … She was a big part of getting that started.”
Current council President Kenneth “Cal” Cecconi said Harris wasn’t satisfied to have a meeting to attend the first Tuesday every month.
“I’ll remember her caring about the borough. The Main Street project, with the new trees, the way it is now is a pretty good tribute to her,” Cecconi said. Coming onto council several years after Harris began her terms, Cecconi said she took him under her wing to make sure he learned how council worked.
Encouraging the Main Street renaissance went on quietly outside the council room. Wrapping up the project was not where Harris was silent. At least twice she implored the borough staff to stage a gala ribbon-cutting when the 2017 project, the replacement of sidewalks and installation of decorative light fixtures, was finished.
The call for the borough to celebrate also came with her parting comments at her final meeting Dec. 5, 2017.
For many years Harris led council’s Finance Committee and helped draft the budget each year. When there was no tax increase, she touted it. When Homer City had to raise the tax, Harris owned it and explained why.
Harris was unabashed in her love of her adopted town (she was raised in Plumville) and stood for what she thought was good and right. Sometimes she stood alone.
“I can’t believe you people,” Harris told council colleagues in May 2010 when they approved the demolition of the historic Homer City State Bank at Main Street and Miller Avenue. “I’ve been going there for 60 years. I’m going to cry and you’re going to put up that junky thing” — her term for the modern office that S&T Bank later built with 6 to 1 approval of council.
“Bea was never afraid to make her voice heard. If she had something to say, she said it,” Nymick said. “You knew when she said something, she wasn’t beating around the bush. And it’s nice to work with somebody like that. She was very direct … it was a pleasure working with her all those years.”
“She was vocal and expressed her opinion, and I liked that about her,” Cecconi said. “Yet she was open to discussion on stuff, her mind wasn’t set in stone.”
The high regard for Harris in the borough office was only a part of the popularity she earned in her community and across the county.
A stalwart of the Indiana County Democratic Party organization, Harris was honored in 2008 as the Democratic Woman of the Year.
Indiana County Community Action Program honored her as a Senior Corps volunteer-of-the-month for her service in 2009.
At her son Forrest Harris’ popular delicatessen and pizza shop, Sanso’s, “Grammy Bea’s” name and likeness appear on the bottles of salad dressing made from her recipe.
Homer City voters eagerly returned Harris to office every four years after her first election to borough council in 1995. Many times she outpolled the others on the ballot. In the 2007 campaign, when no one filed to be a candidate, residents wrote in Harris’ name on more ballots than the next two people combined.
“She was a people person. She probably knew everyone in the borough at some point,” Cecconi added.
A couple of summers ago, Cecconi recalled, was the last time he happened by her house and stopped to chat with her sitting on the porch.
Time flew on after that.
Harris lost her husband of 64 years, Walter, in 2014. Serving on council remained a vital part of her life. It was the business she took up at age 69, when most other folks call it a career.
“This council was so wonderful to get along with,” Harris reflected during her final meeting. “We never fought. We never had a lot of trouble.”
With that, she noted that her attendance record was waning with the advent of her sickness.
She put her colleagues’ feet to the fire one last time.
“Choose very, very carefully who you replace me with,” Harris said.
“We have some people that are highly qualified and you need to look at them very carefully.”
Her retirement letter was read aloud and the room resounded with applause.
“Thanks. When are we having the ribbon cutting?” she responded.