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Joe and Carlisle Harvard: A Passion for People

Forest residents Joe and Carlisle Harvard are high school sweethearts, married for 56 years and counting. They have two children, four grandchildren, and a lifetime legacy of love and devotion that extends well beyond themselves.

As a senior at Dreher High School in Columbia, South Carolina, Carlisle was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by her peers in 1959. This picture was taken the year before, when Carlisle was a junior. (Photo via The Walker Local and Family History Center Digital Collections.)

In 1957, the Harvards met as sophomores at Dreher High School in Columbia, South Carolina. While Elizabeth Carlisle Caughman was born and raised in the state capital, Joseph Sherwood Harvard III was a transplant. Born in Live Oak, Florida, a little town on the Suwannee River in north Florida, Joe moved with his family to South Carolina when his father, a Presbyterian minister, was called to start a church in Columbia.

A love story for the ages

Joe and Carlisle began dating their junior year but held fast to Carlisle’s father’s strict rule for his children: no one was to get married until they graduated from college, and not a moment sooner.

Described in his senior yearbook as being “as tall in character as in stature,” Joe played basketball at Dreher and hoped to continue in college. He was offered two scholarship opportunities – one at Florida State University and one at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina. Since Carlisle – who was offered academic scholarships to colleges in Virginia and in South Carolina – planned to stay in her home state to further her education, Joe chose to attend Presbyterian to remain close to his sweetheart.

A senior at Columbia, South Carolina’s Dreher High School in 1959, Joe was described by his friends as being “as tall in character as in stature.” (Photo via The Walker Local and Family History Center Digital Collections.)

After graduating from college, the two lovebirds finally said “I do.” In a church filled with the congregation from each person’s church, Joe and Carlisle were wed on Saturday, August 17, 1963. Now, with a math degree on deck, Carlisle went to work as a high school teacher, earning income for the couple while Joe attended Columbia Theological Seminary.

Taking their love overseas

Joe finished seminary in 1963 and was granted a fellowship to study at the University of Basel in Basel, Switzerland. The country’s oldest university, the school was established in 1460. Moving to Europe with his beloved, Joe planned to obtain his doctorate in New Testament Studies.

During Joe’s fellowship, the Harvards were honored to meet and befriend world-renowned Swiss Protestant theologian, Karl Barth. Dr. Barth did not own a car and otherwise traveled by foot or used public transportation to get around. When his assistant learned that Joe, a graduate student, owned a small Volkswagen, he called the Harvards and arranged for Joe to transport Dr. Barth to his seminar each week for a year.

Joe saw this arrangement as a privilege. “That was quite an enjoyable experience and very, very enriching,” he says. Many of the Harvards’ seminary friends back home heard about the transportation agreement with Dr. Barth and soon came in droves to visit Joe and Carlisle so that they could ride in the Volkswagen with the famous theologian. At the time, the Harvards lived in a one-bedroom apartment. Things often got a little tight, but Joe and Carlisle were always happy to open their home to friends. “We had guests almost every weekend,” Carlisle recalls.

After a year of studying in Basel, Joe began to grow restless. With the Vietnam War in full swing, there was a lot of turmoil in the world, a lot of it back home in the United States. “I just decided I wasn’t going to spend three years sitting in a library over there [in Europe],” Joe remembers. “I wanted to get back and be part of what was going on over here [in the States].”

A new start in New Haven

Joe applied to Yale Divinity School, and soon he and Carlisle found themselves living in New Haven, Connecticut. After earning his Master’s degree in Social Ethics at Yale, Joe began his ministerial career. The couple first went to Louisville, Kentucky, where they remained for three years. Their daughter, Rebecca, was born in 1969 and adopted into the family when she was just over a month old.

Next, in 1971, the trio of Harvards traveled to Tallahassee, Florida, remaining there for the next three years. Joe and Carlisle’s son, Bankston, was born the same year they moved, and the Harvards adopted him from Louisville to grow their family and to give Rebecca a playmate. In 1974, Joe and Carlisle took their children to Decatur, Georgia, part of the Atlanta metro area, and settled there for six years.

Serving from the heart

While Joe led North Decatur Presbyterian Church, Carlisle served as the manager of the seminary bookstore. The job afforded her flexible hours, a great benefit with two young children at home. At church, the Harvards became a significant part of the North Decatur community. According to church history, Joe’s leadership brought about “a time of healing and a renewed sense of unity” within the church family. Joe and Carlisle regularly hosted new member dinners in their home and delighted in welcoming both seasoned members and new visitors to services. Ministries they began while leading the church are still active and thriving at North Decatur Presbyterian today.

In 1980, Joe received a call to lead First Presbyterian Church in downtown Durham, North Carolina. Joe always had a real passion for urban ministry and this church’s location and established outreach fit the bill entirely. A big fan of basketball, Joe was also thrilled about being in the center of the age-old college basketball rivalry between Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

When he returned to Decatur from a visit to Durham, Joe announced he was very excited to work at the church and lead the people there. However, so long established in Georgia, Carlisle and the children were happy living in the Atlanta area. Upon hearing Joe’s decision to move to North Carolina, Carlisle became very indignant, put her hands on her hips, and exclaimed, “Well! I didn’t know the Holy Spirit worked through the ACC!” Of course, the Harvards laugh about that now!

A calling in Durham and abroad

It didn’t take long for Carlisle to warm up to the idea of relocating to Durham. She soon found her niche in service to the church as part of First Presbyterian’s Peacemaking Committee. In 1983, the Presbyterian Church USA sponsored a trip to Russia, wherein church leaders and laypeople visited religious communities to bring cultures together and find common ground during tumultuous times. Carlisle had great interest in this mission and applied to take part. She was one of 40 people nationwide chosen to attend. After the first successful trip, Carlisle was asked to return to help coordinate future efforts. Over the next 20 years, she visited Russia 18 times.

Carlisle and Joe Harvard in November 2017.

Back home, while Carlisle worked to recruit and train volunteers for hospice, current Forest resident Bill Griffith (then the Vice President of Student Affairs at Duke University) reached out to Mrs. Harvard. The Director of Duke’s International House had just retired, and Bill wanted Carlisle to apply for the role. Very interested in the position but not expecting to get it, Carlisle indeed applied.

Despite other impressive candidates, including internal applicants within the Duke system, Carlisle was chosen for the role in 1986. This was largely because she had so much experience overseas, serving with her church and working within the Russian culture. “Whenever I see Bill now, I go and kiss him on his head, because I’m so grateful to him that I got that job,” Carlisle says of the position she held for just over 21 years.

Early connection to The Forest

The Harvards’ ties to The Forest at Duke began long before they became residents of the community. Joe became a member of the Board of Directors in 1989, following the incorporation of The Forest in October 1988. In 1994, he became Board Chair, succeeding Dr. James Crapo, and served in this capacity until rotating off the board in 2001.

Bringing the world to the Bull City

With Carlisle serving as Director of Duke’s International House, the program grew from a few hundred students to a couple thousand, counting graduate students. “She was the den mother for a big group,” Joe beams. “It was a lot of fun,” Carlisle adds with a twinkle in her eye. “I met people from all over the world.”

Carlisle and a colleague helped Duke recognize the need to offer financial aid to international students, which helped open the school to many families who might not otherwise be able to send their children to the United States. While the program began with students mainly coming to Durham from places like Russia and China, Duke soon welcomed people from all over – Tibet, Afghanistan, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and dozens more. “Mine was the best job at Duke,” Carlisle smiles.

While Carlisle lovingly expanded the international program at Duke, Joe served as First Presbyterian’s dedicated minister for 33 years. His compassionate heart and love for people were clear in everything he did. In 2006, Joe was chosen to receive the annual Samuel DuBois Cook Award on account of his work to improve race relations in Durham. When accepting the honor, Joe credited First Presbyterian Church as being a “positive catalyst” for race relations in the city.

A healing touch in Charleston

Joe retired in 2013 but remained open to serving as a “spare preacher” for any church that called upon his services. In 2015, he received a call from a friend who worked at the historic First Scots Presbyterian Church on the peninsula in Charleston, South Carolina. The church’s senior pastor had just retired after 17 years, and the community needed a transitional pastor to carry them until they found a permanent minister. At the time, the Harvards’ son lived in the Charleston area with his wife and toddler daughter, so relocating to South Carolina for a short time was a no-brainer for Joe and Carlisle.

Joe’s call to service came on Wednesday, June 17, 2015. That night, while Joe and Carlisle watched television, a breaking news story about a church shooting in Charleston flashed across the screen. Nine people had been shot at Mother Emanuel AME Church, just down the street from where Joe would soon be serving. “One of the really amazing things to come out of that tragedy was that we got a chance to walk through that time with some of the folks from Mother Emanuel – people who were closely affected by the shooting,” Joe remembers.

Joe and Carlisle at The Forest in October 2019.

The Harvards soon moved into First Scots Presbyterian’s carriage house on Meeting Street. Because of the church’s location – next door to the federal courthouse where the court proceedings for the shooting took place – Joe, Carlisle, and their church community had the privilege of opening their doors to 125 people personally touched by the tragedy. “It was a very, very meaningful experience for us,” Joe says. He describes the honor of extending hospitality to victims’ loved ones attending the trial. “It was incredible,” Carlisle adds. “Very powerful.”

Finding community at The Forest

Now back in Durham and living at The Forest at Duke, the Harvards find this new season of retired life exciting. This fall, Joe has been leading an OLLI course about the transformation of downtown Durham. The course has been so popular, it boasts a wait list and outgrew its original meeting space. According to Joe, the format of the class is such that past and present community leaders, “who had vision and persistence and were willing to take risks, tell the story of their involvement and the roles they played in helping to bring new life to a dormant city.” Furthermore, he adds, “There was no master plan, but there was a master commitment for the vision of downtown Durham.”

Now, just as they always have through a lifetime of service, the Harvards thrive on their interactions with people. Whether spending time with their family or sharing a laugh with fellow residents in the hall, Joe and Carlisle have a heart for others. “What makes The Forest special are the people,” Joe says. “There are just some fascinating, incredible people. In the dining room, the team members call us by our names. It’s a very personal relationship, and I value it.”

“The people are exceptional,” Carlisle smiles.

Indeed they are. Joe and Carlisle included.

Lauren Young, Marketing Specialist

Header image: In August 1963, Joe and Carlisle peek out the back window of their car before
leaving their wedding reception.
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