The Daily Mining Gazette - Published: Wednesday, January 16, 2008 Print Article | Close Window

Beloved former MTU professor dies at 51

CAPTION: Photo courtesy of MTU Marketing & Communications

Inetta Harris directs the Michigan Technological University ECHOES From Heaven gospel choir in this photograph from 2000. The Juilliard-trained pianist and soprano died in California Monday at the age of 51.


HOUGHTON — Inetta Harris, a former Michigan Technological University fine arts professor and Juilliard-trained soprano, died in Oakland, Calif., Monday from long-term health-related issues. She was 51.

Harris came to the university in 1994 as a visiting professor through the King Chavez Parks minority professionals program. Milt Olsson, Fine Arts Department chairman at the time, said he first contacted Harris not to lure her away from New York, but to learn if she had any recommendations to fill an opening in the department.

“I had heard she was very busy, and very ‘big city,’” Olsson said of the classically-trained singer and pianist. “It blew me away that she was interested in coming here herself.”

Harris, having performed for audiences from Lincoln Center to Paris to Rio de Janeiro, told reporters at the time that she was simply “tired of the road.”

Another draw for Harris, Olsson said, was the chance to direct the ECHOES From Heaven gospel choir, a student-led group formed in 1989.

“She was a wonderful classical soprano but also had a deep commitment to gospel music,” Olsson said. “She was the perfect choice to lead the group.”

ECHOES, an acronym standing for Every Christian High on Evangelical Song, grew to include 40 members, comprised of students from both MTU and Suomi College, as well as singers from the community at large.

Marcia Goodrich of MTU’s marketing and communications department sang under Harris’ direction and called her a mentor to many students, regardless of color.

“What she did for us was so inspiring,” she said. “She got the best out of anyone in any situation.”

Betty Chavis, MTU Director of Outreach and Multiethnic Programs, who remained friends with Harris after her departure from campus, said Harris’ commitment to the group fostered a sense of credibility for ECHOES throughout the campus and the surrounding community.

“She didn’t take any nonsense off those kids at all and they learned to respect that,” Chavis said. “There was no playing around. If you goofed up in your classes, then you didn’t sing.”

However, if you worked hard, you didn’t necessarily have to have an extraordinary voice to be taken under Harris’ wing, Chavis said.

“First, she took them to play in Lansing, and from there they went on a European tour,” she said. “So many of the students had never left Michigan, and that was an experience they’ll never forget.”

Harris told The Daily Mining Gazette in 1996 she was looking forward to taking several ECHOES members on a two-week tour of Europe that June, as Berlin held particularly poignant memories for her. She performed there in 1990 just weeks after the wall came down.

“We got to sing some of the first gospel music those people had ever heard,” Harris said of the earlier trip. “One of the many rewards of teaching is being able to bring these types of international experiences to the students.”

Olsson said students naturally gravitated to Harris’ boundless enthusiasm.

“She had an amazing gentleness, so much love for these young men and women, black or white, not only for their work and their music and their studies, but as human beings,” he said. “She was one of the most effective counselors we’ve ever had, and she wasn’t on the counseling staff.”

When she wasn’t traveling or directing ECHOES, she was performing with the Keweenaw Symphony Orchestra.

“She was incredibly important to us not only because of her leadership of ECHOES and the outreach of black students and their culture, but because she was also very much a classically-trained, highly-talented singer,” Olsson said. “Performing with her was a privilege.”

Chavis and Olsson both noted Harris’ aptitude for the department’s aging Hammond organ.

“She was deeply emotional when she played,” Chavis recalled. “She wore that organ out.”

In 2003, Harris left MTU due to health reasons, moving back to California to remain close to her mother and brother.

“When she left, the loss to the university was felt deeply by anyone who came in contact with her,” Goodrich said.

Olsson called Harris a woman profoundly filled with love.

“She was a strong-willed woman, and we had our battles, but they were battles done with love for each other,” he said. “I’m happy for her that she is beyond the pain and suffering.”

A funeral service for Harris is scheduled for Jan. 23 at 10 a.m. at the Greater Cooper AME Zion Church in Oakland, Calif. Harris Funeral Home in Berkeley, Calif. at 510-525-1331 is handling the arrangements.

Chavis is also organizing a gospel choir concert honoring Harris as part of MTU’s Martin Luther King events on Jan. 26, extending invitations to ECHOES alumni from out of the area.

“So many students from her time on campus are coming out of the woodwork now that they’re hearing about her passing,” Chavis said. “It seems fitting to have one of the last tributes to her be from them.”

Jane Nordberg can be reached at