John Will Harris was born on January 12, 1876, in Dripping Springs, Texas. In 1893, he converted to Presbyterianism and a year later he joined the Presbyterian Church in Cibolo, Texas. Shortly thereafter, he decided to dedicate himself to the ministry and he moved to Missouri to study at Park College. During that era, he worked for a few seasons as a missionary on a Native American reservation in Kansas. After graduating in 1902, he continued his studies at the Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, where he also was ordained as a pastor. When he graduated in 1905, he married a missionary, Eunice E. White.
In 1906, after serving as a pastor in a church in Oklahoma, the Presbyterian Church assigned him to the mission district of San Germán, Puerto Rico. The following year, he began teaching elementary level classes from a house he rented from a family in the Santa Rosa sector of the town. In the beginning, 30 children attended the school. The same year, he acquired some land, which he later traded for another parcel that was better located, to build a school of reinforced concrete and a chapel.
After having considered various possible sites for the institution, Harris obtained an option to buy a lot located in the Lomas de Santa Marta sector of San Germán. In 1911, he incorporated the institution under the name Polytechnic Institute of Puerto Rico as an elementary and high school for both boys and girls.
The school, which from the beginning was known as “El Poly,” officially opened its doors with just two students, but one of them did not return after the first day because of the difficulty of the steep terrain. However, by the end of the academic year of 1912, the enrollment had increased to twelve students, eight male and four female.
The students had to work for four and a half hours a day, labor for which they were not paid. The tuition was $5 or a month of work. The same students built the other structures, such as the dining hall, the dormitories and the classrooms. Additionally, the Reverend Harris made several trips to the United States to seek donations that would allow him to acquire most of the land adjacent to the institution.
After World War I broke out, Reverend Harris found it considerably more difficult to obtain donations, so he went to New York in 1913 to meet with the Presbyterian Church’s National Missions Board. They agreed that while the war continued the board would take the reins of the institution and would establish a budget, which Harris would administer. Three years later, the Presbytery of Puerto Rico sought to remove Harris as director of the institution after accusing him of not staying within his budget and of using funds for purposes other than for which they were assigned, among other things. After an investigation by the members of the National Missions Board, Harris was cleared of the accusations. The board also recommended that $75,000 be assigned for the construction of a science building and that the Poly be led by a Governing Board that was independent of the Presbytery of Puerto Rico.
In 1916, the first high school class graduated and in 1919 the Poly received authorization from the Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly to offer college courses. A year later, the Polytechnic Institute of Puerto Rico was incorporated in Washington, D.C. The first class of students graduated with bachelor’s degrees in 1927, the same year that elementary education was discontinued.
After finally view that the school that he had founded had a solid foundation and was growing steadily, J. Will Harris handed the presidency of the Poly in 1937 to Jarvis S. Morris. That same year, the University of Puerto Rico awarded him an honorary doctorate. Harris and his wife moved to Dilley, Texas, where he dedicated himself to running a cattle ranch. In 1948, the Polytechnic Institute awarded Harris an honorary doctorate in Divinity.
J. Will Harris died in June of 1956, the same year that the school he founded changed its name to the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico.
Harris, John Will. Riding & Roping: The Memoirs of J. Will Harris. San Juan, P. R.: Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico, 1977. Impreso.
“Nuestra historia”. Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico. En línea.
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: May 12, 2010.
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