Sunday, September 8, 2019 marked the fifth anniversary of the sudden death of my beloved husband of 52 years, Harold B. Confer. It is fitting that at this time of back to school events, the International Day of Peace on September 21st and World Quaker Day on October 6th, I should share the life of this ordinary man who did some extraordinary as a teacher, peace worker, and Quaker.
Harold was born in Darlington, Wisconsin to Harold S. (Big Harold) and Grayce B. Confer on Feb. 1, 1941. His father was a teacher of music and his mother a teacher, writer, and homemaker. They moved to San Bernardino, California when Harold was four because of his bout with rheumatic fever. His mom helped find the family a house and his father a job at San Bernardino Community College where Big Harold would teach until his retirement. His work also included directing choir programs at various churches around the city. The family worshiped wherever his choirs sang. Harold and his younger sister Viletta started in their father’s cherub choirs and moved up through the program. There were always singers and instrumentalists at their house including Mr. Jenny, a professional pianist who had taken Big Harold around the United States as a boy soprano. Big Harold also had marching bands so Little Harold put on the smallest uniform to be found and joyfully hiked the Rose Bowl Parade route.
He spurned piano lessons but picked up the guitar and became skilled enough to play with Pete Seeger, Buddy McGee, and other musicians at the Idyllwild Arts Foundation campground in the San Jacinto Mountains. He was a high school maintenance worker there. The foreman was an older craftsman who taught building, plumbing, and carpentry skills and multiple “tricks of the trade” to his workers. While the music led to many stories, the building skills led to a life’s work around the world. While Harold used them to run his own business, he also used them as he participated and led work camps for over fifty years.
His first work camp was in cleanup after a flood wiped out many homes in Marysville, California. He and his junior high mates shoveled mud, wiped down walls, and listened to the stories of the homeowners who had lost everything. He was hooked! In high school he went to Tijuana, Mexico to repair churches and schools with his church group. In college he led migrant farmer workcamps, introducing other students to the lives of the mostly Latino pickers. At Napa State Hospital, he and I led American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) institutional workcamps at the state mental hospital. At a protest march against weapons of mass destruction, he met the Quakers, applied for and received his conscientious objector status, and began to attend the Stockton, CA meeting. Again, he was hooked!
We married on June 9, 1962 and in 1963 were posted to Tanganyika, later Tanzania, with the AFSC’s VISA program to do community development work in a small village in the southwest region near the Mozambique border. What an experience! Harold had an ear for language and I a love of words and structure. The villagers soon named us Bwana Sikio and Mama Mdomo (Mr. Ear and Mrs. Mouth) as we held meetings, listened to needs, and worked with the people to improve their lives. It was in Mpitimbi village that we met our cross the road neighbor Mama Mkeso and her grandson Mwamedi. Mwamedi became a part of our household and later our son Paul. Harold developed plans for a 4-hole latrine at the local market, helped construct an earthen dam to initiate a tilapia fish industry, and illustrated a series of adult literacy books on the Five Year Development Plan. He taught skills to new VISA members, directed work camps at St. Andrew’s Minaki Secondary School with campers from the Quaker George School in Pennsylvania, and was head of the upper school at the Dar es Salaam International School. One of the highlights of our eight years in Tanzania was meeting President Julius Nyerere several times in the villages and at the State House. His unexpected recognition of us at a Washington, DC reception some years later led to a raucous Swahili conversation that kept Henry Kissinger and his wife Nancy waiting not so patiently! We added David to our family on his first birthday in 1969 and welcomed Asha Marie in 1972 on our return to Providence, RI.
In 1971 we officially joined the Quaker meeting in Providence, having held Quaker meetings for worship in our home for six years in Tanzania. Harold involved himself in criminal justice reform, helping change the arraignment process. When we moved to DC in 1973, he worked for the Friends Committee for National Legislation as a Human Rights lobbyist, helping draft early national health care legislation, and speared a one year shut down of the U.S. prison construction budget. Weekends were spent directing work camps at the Martha’s Table soup kitchen, supporting homeowner house building, and renovating shelters for women in DC. He involved high school students, their parents, and other adults in his multi-age, multi-ethnic, and interfaith camps. He encouraged all his campers to engage recipients in telling their stories and sharing their own. This was the essence of his ministry of “being with.”
In his home improvement business he employed clients from our son Paul’s homeless shelter, teenagers trying to find their niche in society, and foreign students wanting to improve their English and discover America. Often these workers joined the camps on the weekend. In 1995-1996 when 145 African American churches were burned by arson or unidentified causes, he left his business and put up shop in Boligee, Alabama. For two or more years he led volunteers from across the United States and several foreign countries to rebuild the churches and empower their members to reclaim their communities. He coordinated funds from the National Council of Churches, the Unitarian Church, the Presbyterian Disaster Service, the AFSC, and big businesses like Home Depot to rebuild ten churches in Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina. The hospitality from church members was overwhelming. Work campers shared stories of transformative life experiences. Friendships grew, stereotypes were dispelled, and models for rebuilding lives after human and natural disasters developed. Recognized by labor unions and civil rights groups, Harold kept sharing his skills, energy, and resources. Helped by the commander of the Alabama National Guard, President Bill Clinton, and cadets from the Air Force Academy, he provided space for over 300 volunteers from 22 states and 15 countries to help.
He was not always an easy man but his heart was very big. At his memorial service at Friends Community School, a K-8 Quaker school he helped found, a diverse community representing all the lives he had touched came together was a meeting for worship. Many had never been to a Quaker meeting, but they rose to share their memories of how Harold had come into their lives and made a difference – the solar panel salesman who reconnected with his children after reading one of Harold’s books, the next door neighbor who shared his appreciation for Harold’s reaching out to his son, the homeless woman who had her bedroom at the shelter painted by high school soccer players. A long time Quaker friend summed it up with “Harold was a good man.” I miss him. My younger son texted me, “He was loved,” and sent me the picture of his dad that is my favorite. He was sharing his ministry of “being with.”
Questions to ponder:
- How did Harold live his Truth?
- What did he mean by “being with”?
- How did Quaker meeting for worship allow space for attenders to share how Harold touched their lives?
- Workcamps can be “transformative.” Think of a “transformative” experience you’ve had and share it orally or in writing.
- How would you like to be remembered?