World-record-holder twice over. Concert pianist. Fundraising champion. Mother to five. Wife of nearly 70 years. These were just a few of the many accomplishments Sister Harriette Thompson (Delta | Dickinson, and later affiliate of Upsilon Alpha | Syracuse), achieved throughout her life.
“When I was in high school, I was voted ‘Most Popular.’ And then when I joined Chi Omega, I learned that I should be ‘lovable rather than popular,’ so then I thought maybe my accolade wasn’t such a good thing!”
And so began Chi Omega’s interview with extraordinary Sister Harriette Thompson. Humble, earnest, funny, and sincere – all qualities that likely made Harriette both lovable AND popular throughout all walks of life.
Always on the Move
While many Sisters may recognize Harriette from the extensive media coverage she received for breaking world records, running a marathon at the age of 91 and a half-marathon at the age of 94, fewer know that her lifetime was filled with incredible accomplishments.
Born in Carlisle, Pa. in 1923, Harriette’s mother said she was always moving – always on the run.
“Ever since I was little, I ran. I ran everywhere. Then, when I could skate, I would skate everywhere. Then I learned to bike and I would bike everywhere. When I ran my marathons a few years ago, reporters asked me ‘How did you prepare for the race?’ And I would reply, ‘Well, I think it started all the way back then!’”
The youngest in a family of five children, Harriette said her four older brothers simultaneously adored her and tortured her when she was little – perhaps the first of many obstacles throughout her life that would showcase her spirit of being “discouraged never.” Her father, Harvey, was a lawyer and her mother, Harriet, was a homemaker who taught her daughter to play the piano.
“So much of your life is by chance or by luck. My best piece of luck was having my mother because she was incredible.”
Chi Omega, Yours Forever
So incredible, in fact, that she coached Harriette’s piano talent into a full ride to college. In 1941, Harriette was offered a liberal arts scholarship to attend Dickinson College, home of Chi Omega’s Delta Chapter, the initiating chapter of legendary former S.H. Mary Love Collins. While Harriette never got the opportunity to meet the famous Mary Love, she was a friend of Harriette’s aunt, who was also a Chi Omega and was very eager for Harriette to join the Sisterhood.
“Dickinson had four sororities at the time. I think Chi Omega was a little more natural, but I also liked Pi Phis, who were so sophisticated. I chose Chi Omega and I was so glad that I did. They were a bunch of wonderful girls and I thoroughly enjoyed being part of the chapter – I moved into the house right away!”
After two years at Dickinson, she secretly journeyed to upstate New York and auditioned for a scholarship at Syracuse University. At the time, her father was insistent that she stay at Dickinson, since it was close to home and she had free tuition. Ever the embodiment of The Symphony, Harriette worked earnestly and received yet another full ride – this one for her passion: music. Her father had no choice but to acquiesce and let her transfer to Syracuse. It was there that she affiliated with Upsilon Alpha Chapter and also met the love of her life – her future husband, Sydnor Thompson.
“I met him my first year (at Syracuse). He then came back from the war in Germany two years later and we started to date. Then he wrote to my dad, asking for my hand. We got married two hours after graduation, which worked out well because all of the flowers from the baccalaureate celebration were still up, so we got to use them! I got ready for my wedding in the Chi Omega house with my Sisters there to help me.”
Moving, Motherhood, and Music
Following their nuptials, Syd enrolled in law school at Harvard while Harriette taught piano at Boston University’s music conservatory. They both earned Fulbright Scholarships, but, as was customary at the time, the couple followed Syd’s Fulbright opportunity to England for a year before moving back and settling in New York City in 1951. By this time, they had one child and another on the way. As Harriette embarked upon motherhood, she continued to teach and perform piano, even giving the first of several recitals at Carnegie Hall. All the while, her husband worked for a competitive law firm, working up the ranks to partner.
“He once wrote a brief for a very important case,” she told Chi Omega. “His boss said it was the best brief he had ever read. I’m curious if you have ever heard of the case….”
(Fun fact: It was the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education.)
In the mid-50’s, Harriette and Syd flipped a coin to help them decide whether to stay in New York or to relocate to Charlotte, North Carolina, a city of only 150,000 at the time.
“Charlotte turned out to be such a vibrant city and we never regretted relocating.”
In Charlotte, they completed their family, adding three more children to their brood. In 1965, the movie The Sound of Music debuted in theaters across the country, subsequently changing her family forever.
“We loved that movie – we saw it 13 times! I wanted the children to be able to speak another language and I thought if I took them over to Austria… even perhaps spent a year in Vienna, the children could learn German.”
And that’s exactly what she did, while also giving her first international piano concert debut in Vienna and earning her Artist’s Diploma at the Vienna Conservatory. In addition to raising five children, teaching them another language, and earning international acclaim for her talented piano performances, our Sister also performed on the Queen Elizabeth II cruise ship from 1972 to 1980, earned her Master of Arts degree from UNC-Greensboro, pursued graduate studies at the University of Maryland, and later taught at Queens College, the Community School of the Arts, and UNC-Charlotte.
High Purpose and Helpfulness
It was in the early 1990s that she became engaged with the Chi Omega national organization. At the time, Chi Omega was embarking on its first fundraising campaign to raise money to build the beautiful Executive Headquarters in Memphis, Tn.
“I did a concert at Queens College in Charlotte, invited the Charlotte alumnae chapter, and gave the proceeds of the ticket sales to Executive Headquarters’ fundraising campaign. It was a big success!” Further highlighting her spirit of “high purpose and helpfulness,” Harriette continued. “I’ve actually been able to do a lot of fundraising with my music. In fact, a few days ago I was thinking if I were in a little better shape I should go to one of the hotels downtown in Charlotte, put a little glass bowl on a piano, and play so people could donate money to the victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. They need a little money right now.”
And while on the topic of fundraising, it wasn’t until she was 74 years old that she began competitively running, for which she is best known.
“I was with my church choir and there was a woman fundraising for a race for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Everyone in my family has died from cancer, so I thought – I can do that! That was in 1999, and I didn’t walk the marathon – I ran! I’ve run out in San Diego nearly every year since. In 2015, I was 92 and that was the year I broke the record for being the oldest woman to run a marathon. And now they want me to be in the Guinness book…oh, what do you call that? The Guinness Book of World Records. They want me to send all of these certificates and get affidavits that I actually did this – it’s going to be in there.”
It’s worth noting that Harriette’s marathon time in the San Diego race was 7:24:36 and she ran while wearing white tights to cover the open wounds on her legs caused by radiation treatments for squamous cell carcinoma. This wasn’t her first battle with cancer, either; she had been diagnosed with several reoccurrences of oral cancer, her first diagnosis in 1986.
Her family has been incredibly supportive of her running.
“Two of my sons run with me! They used to run ahead and then would come back and finish with me to be at the end, but in 2015 one son was with me right up until the very end. During my last race, I had two sons, a granddaughter, and a friend with me the whole time. One of my sons even said, ‘Slow down, mom!’”
Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images for Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series
According to an interview she gave to The New York Times, her 2015 participation at the San Diego marathon raised more than $100,000 for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The year wasn’t entirely full of happiness, however. That same year, she lost her beloved husband of nearly 70 years at the age of 90.
“He was so well-liked. Usually when you’re in your 90’s you don’t have many friends left, but people couldn’t even but get into our church (for the funeral) because there was no space! It was amazing! He would have loved to know that he was so well-received. I was just so fortunate to have him as a husband.”
When asked about how she keeps her positive attitude, despite facing health setbacks and the passing of loved ones, Harriette said, “A lot (of my positive attitude) is due to my mother because she never, ever complained. It sounds so small, but smiling puts you in a better mood. When you smile, it makes you feel better and you can’t think anything bad. I don’t dwell on the fact that I have cancer. I’m just rolling with the punches.”
In June 2017, at the age of 94, she ran her last half-marathon in San Diego, earning breaking world record. Her time was 3 hours, 42 minutes and 56 seconds – an average pace of 17 minutes per mile. After being told repeatedly that she was an inspiration, Harriette told The New York Times, “If at this age I can do anything positive, that’s wonderful.” And at 94, Harriette said she would be remiss if she didn’t acknowledge how much Chi Omega continued to mean to her, since her time at Dickinson and Syracuse.
“I’ve made some of the best friends I have ever had! I had some wonderful roommates with whom I’ve kept in touch. There were three of us in a room and I couldn’t decide who would be my maid of honor so I chose both of them. I just have lifelong friends. And anytime I mention Chi Omega, I feel like different people always tell me that they are Chi Omegas – including a woman I played bridge with this afternoon! I just think it’s important to realize that one little decision may change your whole life. And my decision to be a Chi Omega changed me a lot! I will never forget the wonderful years I had. We’re lucky to be Chi Omegas. We are very fortunate.”
Just a few short days after Chi Omega’s interview with Harriette in October 2017, she joined the Omega Chapter at the age of 94. Her memorial services were held in Charlotte, North Carolina, her hometown of 60+ years. Sister Harriette Thompson lived a life of purpose and beautifully illustrated to us what it truly meant to be discouraged never.