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Sue Bush
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Berkshire Profile: Marie Harpin

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Sunday, December 03, 2006

Marie Harpin
Welcome to Berkshire Profile, an iberkshires weekly feature appearing on Sunday. Each week, iberkshires will highlight a Berkshires resident or entity making a contribution to the Berkshires way of life.

North Adams - The street was Ryan's Lane and the neighborhood was home to the six Scarbo sisters and their single mother. Life was hard but the neighborhood families managed to meet most challenges, according to one of the street's long-ago tenants.

"The people who lived there all worked together, lived together, helped each other," said Marie Scarbo Harpin. "We were poor, but we didn't know it."

A Big Y supermarket now stands in the path of what was Ryan's Lane, and in the decades since her girlhood, Harpin,68, has raised six children as a single parent, purchased a Rock Street home on her own, and gotten herself elected to five two-year City Council terms.

She is what many would consider a city success story; a person who built a life using grit and a solid moral compass, someone who continued to put one foot in front of the other until she achieved her goals.

To Harpin, her work as the coordinator of the Berkshire Action Center's Northern Berkshire office is among her joys and her trials. During a Dec. 2 interview, Harpin said that assisting local families is rewarding but watching families struggle with hunger, poverty and low wages, substance abuse and other issues is a source of frustration.

Harpin joined the agency on Dec. 6, 1993. The community service job followed a decade of employment at the Sprague Electric Co.. in the city.

The action center's Christmas program was based exclusively at the center's Pittsfield headquarters when Harpin joined the non-profit agency, and that year, about 40 Northern Berkshire region children received holiday gifts through the program, Harpin said.

"I Am Only The Middle Man"

This month, an estimated 600 Northern Berkshire children are expected to benefit from the "Elf" program, which now has a Northern Berkshire base of operations in addition to a holiday program at the Pittsfield office. Harpin's efforts are at the heart of the Northern Berkshire program, which is supported by area banks, supermarkets, businesses, and private individuals all dedicated to sharing with families and children.

The evidence of the program's success is easy to discover; Harpin's fourth-floor 85 Main Street office and a fifth-floor storage space are rapidly filling with wrapped gifts destined for family pick-up later this month.

Harpin downplayed her role within the holiday program.

"I am only the middle man," she said. "This happens because of the community. It's all the people, the banks, the hospitals, the markets, it's these people who put this together. It's the community that does this."

Little Things Mean A Lot

Harpin acknowledged a great love of the holidays and an unwavering commitment to helping families during the holiday season. Her dedication is rooted in her childhood, she said.

Her mother was of Italian heritage and her grandmother died when her mother was two years old, Harpin said.

Her mother was raised by a set of grandparents and was not exposed to many American holiday customs during her youth, Harpin explained. And as a hard-working single mother with six daughters to support, "she was a good person but she didn't know how to do Christmas," Harpin said.

Harpin's grandmother Margaret Scarbo would knit and crochet winterwear for the sisters, and she would also hand-fashion new wardrobes for hand-me-down dolls, Harpin said. Those items were given as holiday gifts. Aunts and uncles delivered coloring books, crayons,and other trinkets to the sisters during the holidays.

"They made things, they gave us little things and believe me, when you are a kid, those little things mean a lot," Harpin said.

What Comes Of Sharing May Be Eaten

Her relatives planted seeds of sharing that Harpin and several neighbors cultivated when she lived at the Greylock living complex during the 1960s.

"I know what it is to struggle," she said, and recalled the days when food was scarce at the end of each month. Most of the neighborhood women were in the same situation, and several women worked together to create good meals for their children.

"A few of us families would get together and share our food," she said. "Someone might have potatoes, someone might have a couple cans of clams, somebody might have milk and flour. We'd get together and make clam chowder. Soups, stews, we'd put together what we had and we'd feed our families. We worked together."

During the early 1970s, Harpin became a VISTA volunteer and worked with former Northern Berkshire Community Action Center Director Theresa Louison. Louison subsequently gave Harpin a job.
Under the then-existing state public assistance laws, Harpin was able to hold $1,500 in assets, which she saved and used to buy her Rock Street home.

Between A Rock [Street] And A Hard Promise

The house purchase price was $7,500 and Harpin used her savings as a down payment. The mortgage principle was $6,000, which was to be paid over a 10-year span, she said.

Her house represents the first mortgage closing that well-known area attorney Cecil Driver handled, Harpin said with a smile.

Home ownership was a very big accomplishment for Harpin, she said, but there was one moment when she found that she needed a little salt to flavor some words she was required to munch.

"When we got the house, it was 'Oh my God, I did this'," Harpin said. "This was something I'd always wanted but didn't think I could do. There just this one thing...when we lived in Greylock, and of course I never thought I'd have my own house, my sons wanted a dog. I was scared of dogs, but I would tell them 'If we ever move into our own house, you can have a puppy.' I had to eat my words, we did get a house and we did get a puppy, 'Sheba.' You know how it is when you promise your kids."

Family Holiday Traditions

A Harpin family holiday tradition was established once Harpin became a homeowner.

Her children wanted to exchange gifts with each other during the holidays but Harpin was unable to finance purchases for each child to give individual gifts to five siblings. A family grab-bag was her solution, she said. Each child pulled the name of a sibling and Harpin provided the money for the gift purchases.

The grab-bag tradition has continued through the years and now includes Harpin's 14 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, she said.

Harpin is proud of her children. Keith Harpin lives on Rock Street with his mother. Valmore and Phillip Harpin live in the city as does Marie Harpin Pierce. Glenn Harpin lives in Pittsfield and Doris Harpin Charette lives in Rhode Island.

Harpin's eyes danced with joy during the interview when she asked "OK, aren't you going to ask about the party?"

"You Don't Forget That"

"The party" is a Rotary Club Christmas Party that was initiated about seven years ago and is a resurrection of sorts.

As a child, Harpin attended a lavish holiday children's gala that included gifts and a meal and was sponsored by Rotary Club members at the former Richmond Hotel's famed "Blue Room." The event benefited children from low-income families and party memories burn as brightly as a holiday candle for Harpin.

"There would be two children from each family invited," she said. "You'd walk up that marble staircase and see that tree, that beautiful, decorated tree, that touched the ceiling. Do you know what it is to be 9 or 10 years old and look up at that beautiful tree, see the beautiful tablecloths, the beautiful plates and glasses, and say "look at what I am doing, look at where I am.'"

Harpin stopped speaking for a moment and one could almost see the Blue Room Christmas tree in her eyes.

"You don't forget that," she said quietly. "I got a walking doll there and it was the first doll I ever had that wasn't handed down from my sisters."

The present-day party was first hosted at the city's YMCA building and is now hosted at the Frank R. Stiles American Legion Post 125 post home. There is no marble staircase, but there is a tree, and gifts, and food. The party is an invitation event and this year about 60 children are expected to attend the Dec. 17 event.

"Christmas really means a lot to me," said Harpin. "I wanted Christmas to be better for my children and I want Christmas to be better for the single mothers who come through my office. I remember how I struggled, and I want to help the families who struggle now."

A "Do-er" Who Plans To Keep Doing

Harpin said she will likely seek reelection to City Council during 2007 because "I love my involvement with the city."

She is a "do-er" as opposed to an "observer."

"I'm not one to keep score about what I've done but I am one to jump in and help out," she said. "I do things because they have to be done."

Her love of the city is unshakable, Harpin said. Once, when she was married, she and her husband left the area and lived in another part of the state. The move benefited her husband's work as a baker, she said.

"He was an excellent baker," Harpin said.

Harpin returned to the city in 1961 and lived next to her mother on State Street.

"Moving back to this city was the highlight of my life," she said. "When you are away, and you don't know anyone, and you have children one right after the other, it ain't easy. My mother got me an apartment right next to her and I swore I'd never leave North Adams again."

"And I never did."

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at
Your Comments
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I believe there are two sides to Marie Harpin. She can be a cold heartless woman who is extremely rude. Treating someone who is coming into the Food Pantry like crap is unnecessary. Im sure they already feel pretty low about themselves and for you to make ignorant statments to people makes them feel like they are worthless. You should really think about how you treat people i mean especially the line of work you are in your supposed to HELP people not make people feel bad about themselves. I believe in Karma and it will bite you in the butt one of these days
from: aggravatedon: 09-15 00:00:00-2009

Hi Mimi , great writeup!! Just happened onto and saw your picture. I remember you telling me some of those stories when I also lived in Greylock...You were such a good friend to me and your ready laugh always raised my spirits. Miss you ! and congratulations on having accomplished so much... luv ya!! Vivian
from: Vivian Ron: 01-18 00:00:00-2007

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