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  • Zelema Harris

Aging: My Journey | Part 3

Pima Community College has named

Zelema Harris, Ed.D. from St. Louis, as interim chancellor.

At 71, my anticipated second retirement was a welcomed relief.   I’d held a paying job since I was 12 years old, working in the Five and Dime Store, but I had been working most of my life on our small family-owned cotton farm.  I’d tried retirement once, then was asked—strongly encouraged to assist a large community college system in St. Louis. I worked there for five years. Now, for the first time, I felt I deserved time away for myself. 


Leaving St. Louis Community College in 2011 was not as effortless as I had planned. Instead of packing up and leaving, there were celebratory events, meetings introducing the new chancellor to business leaders and colleagues, and saying goodbye to personal friends I had made in the community.

Finally, I packed up my condo and moved back to my lake home in Decatur, Illinois, where the cold, damp winter and strong winds from the lake took me back to the Carle Pain Clinic in Champaign, Illinois, with severe back and shoulder pain.  I continued to receive steroids in my shoulders and spinal canal and physical therapy. These treatments helped to reduce the pain.  I also used heating and cooling pads and various ointments.  I did not stop my exercise routine of walking on the treadmill at least three miles a day.

Once again, as I had done after my first retirement from Parkland in 2006, I began to execute my plan to enter a life of domesticity - gardening, boating, cooking, and entertaining family and friends.  I recall being with my six-year-old granddaughter, who snapped green beans with me as we sat on the screened-in back porch overlooking the rippling waves on the lake or when we swung on a glider that opened into a bed on my lower deck.  The large oak trees allowed slivers of sun to cast gold on our faces, hugging as we moved back and forth with ease.  I remember the 3ft tall bright glowing red “Z” for Zelema, which was a gift, shining on my lower deck, night after night, to bring me and my guests home from our excursions on the lake in my pontoon boat, like a personalized lighthouse.  I later discovered that many of the homes around the lake used my Z as a point of reference.

I even purchased a sewing machine, patterns, and fabric.  I hadn’t sewn in 30 years.  From the age of nine, I learned to sew on a Singer foot pedal machine. I first made a blue and pink floral sun dress cut out of the fabric from three flour sacks. (I am surprised my mother allowed me to wear that awful-looking dress.)   

I was also doing volunteer work with my civic organization, The Central Illinois Links, Inc., a chapter of the largest invitation-only international civic organization of African American women or women of African ancestry’ ( I joined Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Decatur, Illinois, after meeting the pastor’s wife in the women’s department of my favorite dress shop. She invited me to her church.  I was fascinated with her energy and her cutting-edge style.  I thought she was the hippest church First Lady I had met.  I visited the church a few times and felt comfortable that I would be able to connect to the Black community and become involved in social and political issues. I did not know anyone in Decatur except my neighbors because my lake home, purchased in 2002, was meant to be a retreat from my work and involvement in the Champaign-Urbana community.

Soon after joining the church, I was asked by the pastor, Dr. Rev. Stuart, to develop a proposal for a two-year Bible college modeled after a Bible college in Chicago.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to give up my retirement activities to plan a Bible college. Creating a Bible college was not what I had in mind as a volunteer activity.  However, after reviewing the notes I had taken during my meeting with the pastor and the curriculum at the Bible college in Chicago, I decided to accept the job. There was never any mention of compensation. The pastor and I both knew this was a voluntary position. And I felt honored to be asked to undertake such a significant assignment. Since the college was going to be a site for a Bible College in Chicago, I utilized their curriculum and developed a flexible schedule to meet the needs of working adults. I finished the proposal and presented it to the pastor. (The pastor called me a year later, in 2014, to inform me the proposal was accepted as given, and the college was in full operation in Decatur as the Chicago Bible Institute International Satellite Campus. He had been trying to establish the college for ten years).

In March 2013, I received an unexpected call from a consultant working for the Pima Community College District in Tucson, AZ. She asked if I were interested in assuming the Interim Chancellor position until the Board could hire a new chancellor.  She assured me she would not ask me to stay longer than three months.  I told her the last time that happened; I stayed at the college for five years.  Going to a warmer climate in Arizona sounded like a needed retreat, but I was now 73 years old. 

I went online and learned about the eight sexual harassment charges brought against the previous chancellor, the dysfunctional board, and the misdeeds of some administrators.  I became interested and felt I could benefit the college system. The weather was dry in Arizona, and I had read it was good for arthritis.

“If you are doing something you love, then you don’t have to work one day in your life.”  (Donny Marshall, Norfolk Naval Shipyard, 1/31/2020).  This quote best expresses how I approached my career and may explain why I kept returning to my passion.

One month after that call, I arrived in Tucson, Arizona, on April 13, 2013.  Within days, I noticed that I was no longer in pain.  This place was a miracle!  My body adjusted to the warm, dry climate, and I learned to drink more water than ever before.  My administrative assistant at the college placed six 16.9 oz bottles of water on my desk each morning.  The climate demanded extra hydration. I drank all six bottles each day.  I also drank water when dining away from the office. My skin looked and felt alive.

After living and working in Tucson for three months, I decided to live there.   I felt healthier than I had in a long time.  I walked everywhere.  The air was clean.  The sky was vast and clear blue.  I was ready for a quieter pace of life without the chronic pain.  And I would be closer to two of my three children who lived in Los Angeles, California.  And closer to my granddaughter.


I signed the purchase agreement for a beautiful sun-lit house on October 31, 2013.  The house was in an ideal environment for staying healthy and enjoying the beauty of a well-planned community at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains.  The walking paths surrounded a golf course with native plants every few feet along the route.  It was a gorgeous setting.  I described the place to a friend in Illinois as “a sliver of heaven.” 

I walked each morning at 5:00 a.m. for 30-40 minutes, returned home, and was ready to leave for work at 7:00 a.m.  I ended my workday around 7:00 p.m.  I ate most dinners at the Whole Foods restaurant near my home.  My favorite meal was humus, raw vegetables, pita bread, and a glass of red wine while I poured over emails during dinner.  I continued to read documents after I got home, and bedtime meant falling asleep reading about Pima’s challenges.  On other nights, I had dinner at Pita Jungle, a local Mediterranean restaurant. 

The new Chancellor was hired and assumed his position three months later, on July 1st, 2013. The Board asked me to stay on to assist the new chancellor during his transition. I loved supporting the Chancellor initially because I could complete some of the work I started as interim chancellor, such as preparing the college for accreditation.  However, I spent most of my time correcting decisions made by others.  I did not care for this role.  It had become stressful.  I had begun to have heart palpitations during this period.

I spoke to the Chancellor and advised him that I would leave at the end of the fiscal year, June 30, 2014.  He was gracious enough to host a departure celebration for me and two others leaving his administration. I don’t regret accepting the positions I held at Pima.  I brought stability to the college and support to the women who had filed complaints against the previous chancellor. Of the eight active cases, the complaints were settled within the college; some went through the legal system, while others fell victim to statutes of limitations. I spoke to two women who did not file a complaint because they were married and wanted to keep the harassment secret.  One of the two women confessed to falling in love with the chancellor.  I spent an excessive amount of time listening to various employee groups air their grievances.  I offered advice and made short-term decisions only because I did not want the new chancellor to be saddled with my choices.

Leaving my job at Pima did not affect my desire to stay in Tucson. After all, I was attracted to the position partly because LA, where two of my three children and granddaughter lived, was a nine-hour drive from Tucson. I purchased a condo in Woodland Hills, California, in 2011 for that purpose – to be available to my daughter and granddaughter, who lived twenty minutes from my condo.  I drove Interstate 10 from Tucson to LA approximately five times a year, listening to Coltrane, Muddy Waters, Johnny Guitar Watson, and other genres of music.   I attended all my granddaughter’s school events and performances and assisted her mother by driving my granddaughter to and from her elementary and middle school in Studio City. 

I knew that my third retirement in Tucson was my last.  I was 74 years old and was determined to make this retirement stick. My son would call me each day on his way to work in Malibu.  He was in graduate school at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Santa Barbara, CA., and was taking a course in geropsychology, an understanding of the psychological and social need of older adults.  He knew how important it was for me to remain socially connected. He encouraged me to stay in the Links.  He insisted.  Reluctantly, I transferred my membership from the Central Illinois Links to Tucson, where I became Vice President.  It was a good decision.  I developed friendships through the Tucson Links that are still strong today.

Living in a university town provides an array of entertainment.  I took advantage as much as possible, from a Burt Bacharach concert to Gladys Knight at the Fox Theater.  I held season tickets to the Arizona Theater Company.  And on campus at the University of Arizona, there was always some entertainment.


I found gardening in Tucson to be challenging and quite expensive.  During my youth, I lived on a farm where a garden was necessary.  Growing things has brought me joy as long as I can remember.  Observing nature’s work, from tiny seeds to bountiful vegetables, brings me immense pleasure.  However, I was determined to have a garden in Tucson, but It was impossible to dig in the rocky clay soil, so I grew vegetables in large pots.  I had an irrigation system installed because the original one had broken lines, and water pooled in the wrong places.  I was never able to learn the new system.  Setting the system to water different species of plants at various times of the day was alien to me. I read as much about the plants I had purchased to determine how much water they needed.  If I had known the difficulty of gardening, I would have planted one type of plant that could survive severe weather. Despite the erratic behavior of the watering system, my plants thrived. The ten rose bushes I had planted outside my bedroom window produced large, healthy roses. Also, I kept busy remodeling my sunlit, airy Mediterranean home. 

Finally, I was settling into a blissful retirement.

Part 4 will be posted within two weeks.


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