Roberta Margaret McDowall Harris, a resident of Three Rivers for 70 years, died Monday, June 4, 2018. She was 83.
A memorial service will be Saturday, June 30, at 11 a.m., at Three Rivers Community Presbyterian Church.
Roberta (Bobbie) was born August 18, 1934, to Archie McDowall and Mary W. (Alderson) McDowall of Three Rivers while the family was vacationing in Portland, Ore. She had two older siblings, Keith and Phyllis.
Archie and Mary had immigrated to the United States from Canada. Initially, they settled on Mary’s family’s homestead in Exeter, Calif., but in 1929 moved to Three Rivers where Mary began her nearly 40-year career as a teacher and, later, superintendent/principal at Three Rivers Union School.
When Bobbie was born, the family lived next to the Kaweah Post Office with Ida Purdy, the postmistress. The house was also one of the community libraries, and people would come to check out books.
When Bobbie was five years old, the family moved 100 yards up North Fork Drive after purchasing a chicken ranch that her father operated throughout her childhood and where she remembered spending many hours working.
Bobbie was close to her Grandma Flora (Mary’s mother) who lived with them and took care of Bobbie as a child.
Bobbie had great childhood memories of going to the river with her friends in the summer. But then came the floods of 1950, 1955, and 1966, and the trauma never left her after she witnessed the near-drowning of her father and the extensive loss of family property. Although she was a strong swimmer, Bobbie never got over her anxiety when a loved one was in the water.
Bobbie attended Three Rivers Union School and, in 1952, graduated from Woodlake Union High School. During these years, the family would travel to Pincher Creek, Alberta, Canada, each summer to visit the family homestead and visit their beloved family there.
In the fall of 1952, Bobbie began attending Cal Berkeley. It was there that she met and married Jack Harris.
Bobbie gave birth to her first two children, Mary and Jackie, while living in Berkeley. In 1959, Bobbie and Jack moved to Porterville when Jack got a job teaching at Porterville College. It was there that daughter Robin was born.
The family moved to San Jose when Jack got a job in aerospace, and sons David and Steven were born there. While in San Jose, Bobbie helped to establish a co-op preschool at a neighborhood church.
In the summer of 1965, the family moved to Bobbie’s hometown of Three Rivers. Bobbie finished her teaching credential at Fresno State in the summers, sometimes taking all five kids to Fresno with her.
She began her teaching career as a long-term substitute teacher at Three Rivers School and then, as her youngest, Steven, entered kindergarten, she followed in her mother’s footsteps and began teaching at TRUS full time. Her mother had retired the previous spring and started helping get the five Harris kids ready to get on the school bus each morning while Bobbie headed to the classroom to prepare for teaching.
Bobbie taught at Three Rivers School from 1968 to 1995. For nearly 90 years, beginning with Mary McDowall in 1929, there has continuously been a member of Bobbie’s family employed at Three Rivers School, including currently her daughter, Robin Pena (who has worked at TRUS since before Bobbie retired), son-in-law Edmund Pena, and granddaughter Darcie Pena.
During her time at TRUS, Bobbie taught third, fifth, and eighth grades. She also taught music to the seventh and eighth grades.
Bobbie enjoyed teaching and helping kids to reach their potential. She was known for her love of music in the classroom and the musicals that her classes performed, especially “The Missing Part of Speech” and “Gonna Have An Earth Day.”
All five of Bobbie’s children attended and graduated from TRUS. Upon her retirement, she had five grandchildren in attendance at TRUS.
In total, seven of Bobbie’s grandchildren attended TRUS from kindergarten through eighth grade. Like her mother before her, Bobbie was a beloved teacher to generations of Three Rivers kids. Children remember her piano playing, the jingling of her bracelets, and her love of literature and writing.
In 1974, Bobbie was presented with the Teacher of the Year award by the Masonic Lodge of Woodlake. That same year, she became a member of the Delta Kappa Gamma teachers’ honor society. Bobbie loved her affiliation with the Eta Zeta Chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma and participated for over 40 years, including serving as president for several years.
In 1994, Bobbie received the Three Rivers PTA’s Honorary Service Award. One of her greatest honors as a teacher was the personal correspondence she received from President Obama. He wrote to her shortly after his first inauguration to tell her how important she had been to former TRUS student Henry DeSio, who had served as chief operating officer of Obama’s election campaign.
Following her retirement in 1995, Bobbie continued teaching homeschooled kids and giving piano lessons. She was a TRUS board trustee from 2002 to 2010.
In the early 1980s, Bobbie began traveling with her now adult children. She traveled with her grandson to different places in the country to meet his mom — her daughter — Mary, while she was on tour with Jimmy Buffett.
Bobbie traveled to Tahiti, Scotland, Vancouver Island, and many different states with her kids and families. She was the matriarch for all the families who met at Catalina Island each summer for a week of good times and music.
As a big Cal Bears fan, Bobbie went to Cal Football games with fellow alum, daughter-in-law Susan, and son David. Bobbie continued to return to Pincher Creek, Alberta, to visit family throughout her life and then onto Edmonton when her son, Steven, moved there.
Bobbie’s life was enriched by supporting and fundraising for causes and politics related to human rights, education, and cancer research. She was a lifelong athlete, playing tennis, softball, running, and working out regularly. She continued her fitness routine until well into her 70s.
A favorite memory was of her bridge group of educators and spouses, a fun group that got together for decades. As a member of the Three Rivers Community Presbyterian Church, Bobbie sang in the choir and was an elder for many years.
Bobbie’s dogs were part of her family and all the extended family’s dogs loved her and wanted to be near her. Bobbie was immensely proud of her kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids during their best moments and accomplishments as well as when they wrestled with life’s difficulties. Her unconditional love and support for her family was, and will continue to be, an inspiration to all who knew her.
For all but the 13 years after she left for college, Bobbie lived in Three Rivers. She was raised and educated here, then returned to educate two generations of Three Rivers children as well as raise her own five children here.
Bobbie was preceded in death by her parents, Mary McDowall (1903-1988) and Archie McDowall (1890-1983) of Three Rivers; siblings Phyllis Rose (1929-1991) and Keith McDowall (1927-2001); and on April 25, 2018, the father of her children, Jack Harris.
Bobbie is survived by her five children, Mary Harris and husband Burleigh Drummond of Thousand Oaks, Jackie Harris-Groeber and husband Robert Groeber of Three Rivers, Robin Pena and husband Edmund Pena of Three Rivers, David Harris and wife Susan Gomez-Zwiep of Long Beach, and Steven Harris and partner Colette Hunter of Edmonton, Alberta. She will also be greatly missed by her 14 grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and numerous nieces, nephews, cousins, friends, former students, and colleagues.
Music was a theme for Bobbie and her family her entire life, whether performing or enjoying a live performance. Bobbie began playing piano as a small child and continued playing and accompanying students and family throughout her life.
She shared her love of singing and making music with her kids when they were young, and that inspiration has continued for four generations of singers and instrumentalists. Now, family gatherings nearly always include a family jam session, whether in public or sitting around a living room. Bobbie’s last solo in a family jam fit her philosophy of what was important in life: “All you need is love.”