Rachel B. Harley
Published 1:54 pm Tuesday, February 5, 2019
YPSILANTI, Mich. — Rachel Augusta Brett Harley (Oct. 23, 1939 – Dec. 7, 2018) acted on behalf of women and the under-served at Eastern Michigan University, as well as Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and beyond during 35 years (1969-2004) as a faculty member in both the School of Music & Dance (MD) and the Department of Women and Gender Studies (WGST.) Harley served also as undergraduate adviser and chairperson of the general music education/music therapy program for many years. Then for more than 10 years, she also worked as the first undergraduate adviser in WGST. Further, Harley was instrumental in the reorganization of EMU’s affirmative action program, served as the EMU-AAUP president and vice-president, and as a member of its executive committee, on the negotiating team and grievance review board. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of North Carolina and a doctoral degree from the University of Michigan.
Rachel came to be known for her adventures and solo exploits from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest to the Maritimes driving her rig, which she named Vanna (as in Vanna Van Gogh.)
Politically active she’s also remained a staunch member of RVing Women, making friends across the U.S. at rallies and solo travels. A music connoisseur, particularly of trad jazz and choral music, she also collected Inuit and Northwest coast art. A reader since childhood, she went through various topics and categories in spurts and phases: mystery series; U.S. history; women’s issues; and or history of the South. As a nature and animal lover she supported many related causes, especially those involving cats. Also quite the creative chef, many want copies of her recipes!
Growing up in Franklin in Southeastern Virginia, the daughter of Dennis Brett and Augusta Raymond, Rachel played piano and sang, later picking up the double bass. She arrived in Michigan in 1969 after completing bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education from the University of North Carolina and teaching in the schools for several years. The doctorate in Music Education with specialization in classroom music led to the dissertation “Ananias Davisson: Southern Tune-book Compiler (1780-1857,)” detailing shape-note singing, which has been published across seven editions. A later publication “Michigan Women: Firsts and Founders” by Harley and Betty MacDowell, saw four editions between 1992-1995. This volume recognizes the achievements of more than 500 women who have been the first women (or first persons) in their fields or who have been the founders of movements, programs, organizations or institutions that have benefited our society.
When her home department would not allow her to develop a course on Women in Music, Harley taught the first Introduction to Women’s Studies course at Eastern in 1980. Later in 1991, she offered the same class as the first Honors section. Rachel influenced countless WGST students through General Education and majors courses. In the community Rachel worked to establish Ann Arbor’s Women’s Center, SafeHouse, as well as the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame situated in Lansing and served on the national board of NARAL – Pro-Choice America.
Harley has been honored with the Advancement of Women award by the EMU Women’s Association. This acknowledged her as a member of the university community committed to a position change and/or improvement of the scholarly or professional environment for women at EMU. She was singled out for her involvement on the Women’s Studies Committee, as well as serving as faculty advisor for WomynSpace, chairing the Women’s Association Awards Committee and for “demonstrating an enormous interest in the recognition of women, equal treatment of women and concern for women’s issues.”
Rachel has made a difference in so many ways in our world. We honor her courage in addition to her ability to, as she’d say, to “get things done.” Rachel, you continue to inspire!
She is predeceased by her parents; her loving partner, jazz bassist Theodore Harley; and brother-in-law, concert pianist Bela Szilagyi.
She is survived by her sister, Elizabeth Szilagyi; and her daughters, Lisa Gephardt (Williams) and Anda Szilagyi Santos (Anderson;) as well as cousin, Sean Autrey (Laura;) and sons, Oliver and Logan Autrey. Finally, we must note her dedicated travel companion, Buddy-the-cat, who enjoys daily walks in the neighborhood on a leash, in addition to true friends and colleagues too numerous to mention.
One friend wondered about Harley, ‘How is it you are able to begin a conversation … with anyone, and afterwards the other person is elevated to a higher positive outlook,” then added, “It seems I’ve heard said a free spirit knows no boundaries!” Primarily a teacher to many on many subjects, she remained renowned for her generosity. A former student commented that “She always had a way of connecting that made me happy to be at EMU — she was so real, humble, interested, compassionate, intuitive, smart. Beat to her own drum — exuded authenticity.”
To honor Dr. Harley, her dedication as a teacher and leader, please consider donating to Distinguished Leaders of Women’s Studies, an endowed EMU scholarship that acknowledges Rachel as one of the department’s founders who began the first Women’s Studies minor in the state in 1975. The scholarship recognizes “outstanding academic success for a WGST major or graduate student.” Donate via www.emich.edu/foundation/give/ and type in Distinguished Leaders of Women’s Studies to complete the donation. Details will follow for a celebration of life in spring.