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Ora Mae Harn, 1933-2010

Ora Harn

Ora Harn in 2004/Tucson Citizen file photo.

If only we were all like Ora Mae Harn.

Far too many of us when faced with problems in our communities look for someone else to solve them. For the little farming community of Marana, that someone more often than not was Ora Harn.

Harn died Wednesday after a 10-year battle with cancer. She was 77.

Marana, the county and the state are the poorer for her passing.

She was only about two feet taller than a yardstick yet she cast a giant shadow over Marana, touching the lives of nearly everyone who lived there.

She moved to the wilderness of the Avra Valley in 1961 with her husband Gerry, who had taken a job at the Silverbell copper mine.

She immediately began volunteering in her new hometown, such as it was, driving a school bus and working in the school lunchroom.

Marana was a poor, unincorporated farming community then, about as blue as blue collar can get. Most people either worked in the mines or on the cotton farms.

There was little health care available out there. When the fledgling University of Arizona medical school began staffing a trailer with newly minted doctors once a week as part of a rural health care grant, she stopped by one day and offered to help.

It was fateful day. The little volunteer lunch lady, practically through sheer force of will, turned that medical-clinic-in-a-trailer into the Marana Health Center, the largest health provider in the entire Avra Valley. She worked there for 25 years, the last 10 as its executive director.

While working at the health center as its social services director she noticed the poor people it served were often hungry. The closest food bank was dozens of miles away in Tucson.

The one-woman whirlwind whipped into action, founding the Marana Food Bank in 1985.

When floods ravaged Marana in 1983, Harn – who had walked to high ground through hip-deep floodwaters in the dead of night – was among those who demanded the county build levees along the Santa Cruz River to protect the town. It took 18 years (the county twice raided bond funds intended to build it), but in 2001 when the levee was finally finished, Harn was among those standing atop it to cut the dedication ribbon.

In 1985, she was elected to the Marana Town Council. The little town was formed to defend the region from Tucson’s water avarice. The city had been buying up farms for the water rights so the farmers formed a town to put a stop to it.

But by the end of the 1980s, the town was broke. Harn was among those who championed a brazen solution – annex eight miles to the south along Interstate 10, ballooning out east of the interstate between Ina and Orange Grove roads to grab the big retail shopping plazas along Ina and Thornydale roads.

Tucson tried to stand in the way because it coveted the area’s sales tax gold mines for itself. But the little-town-that-could won a two-year court battle and Marana was saved from financial ruin.

Her beloved Gerry died in 2001 and Ora had her first cancer scare. She retired from the health center and didn’t run for re-election to the council. But she hardly led the life of a retired lady, resigned to the rocking chair and visits from grandchildren.

She took up a new cause: Preserving Marana’s heritage and culture. Today there is a heritage park in Marana where some of the town’s historic buildings are preserved and where a 10-acre farm grows food for the food bank. Guess whose idea that was?

It’s an exaggeration to say Harn achieved all these things by herself. There are dozens of people who can claim the health center, the food bank, the levee, the town’s financial security and its cultural conservation as their own. It took a community of people to build one.

But that’s what Harn was particularly good at – identifying a problem, figuring out who was needed to solve it and bringing them together to get the job done. Sometimes that meant a pat on the back or an ego stroke and sometimes it meant an arm twist or even a poke in the chest to get people to do what was right.

Harn was a woman of modest means and modest education. But she had heart, she had compassion, she had courage and she had will.

And that was more than enough.

She will be missed.

. . .

Text of Rep. Jim Kolbe’s House of Representatives floor speech honoring Ora in 2001:




Monday, March 19, 2001

Mr. KOLBE: Mr. Speaker, I rise today to honor Mrs. Ora Mae Harn, a resident of the town of Marana, Arizona for the past forty-one years. Ora Mae is being honored on the occasion of her retirement last year from the Marana Health Center.

After arriving in Marana, Ora Mae worked for the Marana Unified School District from 1962–74 as a bus driver, a cafeteria cook and a warehouse assistant. Subsequently, she spent a quarter century at the Marana Health Center, serving as director of community relations (1975–79), social services director (1979–91), and finally as director until her retirement last year.

Starting in 1985, Ora Mae was a member of the Marana Town Council, and served as Marana’s first female Mayor from 1990–95 and again from 1997–99. Her constant work to cultivate lasting professional relationships with regional, state and federal officials benefited Marana in many ways.

She has served as president of the Arizona Women in Municipal Government, as a member of the Pima Council on Aging (1983–87), as an active representative to the Pima Association of Governments as early as 1990 (including serving as its Chair in 1999) and has represented Marana in the League of Arizona Cities and Towns as early as 1992.

Ora Mae has been the major force in bringing floor control projects to Marana and starting the Pima County Santa Cruz Bank Protection Project. She also played a role in the levee project, which was completed and dedicated last year, and she was instrumental in bringing a federally funded housing program to Marana, earning her several awards from the Community Development Block Grant Program for her outstanding leadership and community involvement.

Ora Mae has been involved with a large number of community projects such as Marana’s Founders’ Day Committee, the Sister Cities Program, Yoem Pueblo Rehabilitation Project, the Lot Beautification Program, The Great American Smokeout, and The Graffiti Abatement Program. She founded the Marana Food Bank in 1985 and is currently its volunteer director. And she continues to be extremely involved with her community by volunteering for projects as varied as reading to elementary school students and church-sponsored activities.

Married for almost fifty years to Gerald Harn, who passed away last month, she is the mother of two daughters and a son and the proud grandmother of five. Since coming to Marana, she has been an active member of the Faith Community Church congregation and has volunteered for numerous church-sponsored activities.

Mr. Speaker, I’d like to commend Mrs. Ora Mae Harn for her four decades of tireless service to the town of Marana and wish her well in her retirement, which I suspect won’t really be a retirement.

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