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Community activist, advocate for the poor Martha Harris dies at 75

April 26, 2003
Santa Paula News

Martha Kinney Harris made outspokenness a lifestyle and the petite bundle of energy, a writer, advocate for the poor, master gardener and activist died April 19th, 2003 after a long illness at the age of 75.

By Peggy KellySanta Paula TimesMartha Kinney Harris made outspokenness a lifestyle and the petite bundle of energy, a writer, advocate for the poor, master gardener and activist died April 19th, 2003 after a long illness at the age of 75.“Martha was a great asset to our community, accomplished a lot of good ; Santa Paula has truly suffered a great loss,” said Flo Zakrajshek.Known as a tireless researcher, “When Martha spoke she spoke from the facts,” which often made those in city government wary of her watchdog ways. “We have lost a great community activist,” Zakrajshek noted.Born in Spencer, Indiana on Jan. 21, 1928, Martha was active in all sports, played flute in the school band and graduated second in her high school class. She married U.S. Geological Survey cartographer Jerry Harris when she 19 and the couple embarked on moving from place to place as he was reassigned. They had three children, Linda, Carol and the late Elaine, who suffered a birth injury and died as a young child.The Harris’ were in Anchorage, Alaska when the massive earthquake struck in the 1960s, among the experiences she wrote about living “on the edge of the known world.”In Alaska, Martha did television shows for the American Cancer Society, served as a lifeguard for the Camp Fire Girls, and continued her hobbies as a notable tennis player, swimmer and quilter.Martha, one of 11 siblings, learned gardening at her mother’s knee and developed a love of growing flowers and herbs. The Harris family moved to Santa Paula in 1972 and thereafter she split her time between her hilltop home, Kentucky family farm and Alaska.
Martha started purchasing rental properties in Santa Paula, a town she was first attracted to due to its lack of heavy fog. “I have always like a mixture of people, houses, jobs and culture,” she wrote. “I could never live in a place where there was a sameness to everything. . .I tell others that I love Santa Paula, warts and all.”She became a major property owner who believed in keeping her units affordable; it was common of Martha to help finance the education of her tenants’ children and help their parents to buy their own homes. . .rents were never an issue with Martha, but lives.Much like she had in the 80 places the Harris’ had lived in 11 states, Martha became active in the community. She was a founding member of Meals on Wheels, was active in the League of Women Voters, Rotary, Committee 2000 and BOCCAC, the latter formed to study public safety issues.Whether it was chasing eclipses - she traveled widely to witness numerous events - gardening, writing columns for the Santa Paula Times or sharp letters to the editor, Martha did everything with a true passion.Politics, whether they be state, federal or local, were a dominate part of Martha’s life and she kept a close eye on city government, attending all City Council meetings - often offering critical public comment - until her illness started in 1999.One friend noted that with her death, “Martha is probably driving God crazy telling him how to run things. . .and she’s probably right!”Martha is survived by her husband Jerry, daughters Linda Phillips and Carol Harris, grandchildren Philip Fontana and Leanne Puga, and sisters Rachel Wood and Caroline Beck.Services are pending and the family requests that in lieu of flowers donations be made to a favorite charity.