When you meet a truly blissful nonagenarian, you wonder what kind of spirit is alight warming the zest for life? In the case of Rutland resident Harriet Potter, who turned 90 on June 23, it's the closeness of a loving family's five generations, many friends, neighbors, a spiritual community at Grace Congregational Church, and treasured Vermont memories that make this unique woman's long life worth celebrating.
Harriet's daughter, Bette Parker, laughs at the similarity between her mother's name and the fictional magician Harry Potter of children's book fame. Beyond the similar sounding names, there's a decided touch of magic about Harriet Potter that transcends her 90 years.
An exact count of 90 members of the Potter and Parker families, as well as friends, helped celebrate Harriet's 90th birthday at the Franklin Conference Center recently-and Harriet was the queen bee of the ceremony to help recount the changes she witnessed in nearly a century of life.
Rutland grew from a small town to a busy city since the year of Harriet's birth-1919, a year after the War to End All Wars, World War I, ended. At the time of her birth, Harriet's father was a busy and prominent businessman, founder of Smith Lumber, now Rotella Building Materials, in Rutland. The Smiths would also be kept busy when three other children came along to join their sister Harriet.
She was born at home on Church Street, then known as Lincoln Avenue. She spent her youth in Rutland, Clarendon Springs and Proctor. Later in life, Harriet and her husband lived in Florida. She returned to Rutland to live with family a few years ago.
"As a little girl, there were still horses and wagons around Rutland," Harriet said. "Now today there is a lot of automobile traffic around here." She also remembers the old face of downtown Rutland's Merchants Row with its Buster Brown shoe store, New York Clothing Store, and popular Economy Store.
Known to her close friends as "Hattie", Harriet fondly recalls her student days at both the Meldon Elementary School (which stood at the site of today's Rutland Fire Station) and Rutland High School.
A member of RHS' Class of 1937, Harriet still maintains contact with a few of her surviving classmates-Edna Connor, Peg Johnson, Mary Riordon, and cousins Olive Smith and June Soine. As a high school student, "Hattie" was attractive, well liked, and an accomplished musician; she played the violin in the school orchestra every year during her attendance. And in a photo caption appearing in her 1937 RHS Talisman Yearbook, the editor had this to say: "Hattie is the dignified girl who comes forth with the right answer."
A year after high school graduation, Harriet met and married Arthur "Art" Potter. They had five children and together, for the next 44 years, they made beautiful music together.
Thanks to the discipline of mastering the violin at a young age, Harriet went on to become one of the Rutland area's most accomplished fiddlers.
With a knack for making clothing, she was also a 4-H leader involved with the Ira Grange.
With her husband Art, who was employed as a carpenter with Howe Scale and Vermont Marble and passed away in 1982, she enjoyed playing country-western music at local gatherings including many an old-fashioned country hoedown. One of her favorite CW stars is still Johnny Cash. She also enjoys public television reruns of "The Lawrence Welk Show" from the 1960s and '70s which include renditions of the old standards she grew up enjoying-and playing.
During a recent interview, Harriet paged through her family's lovingly handcrafted birthday gift-an album including memories and photographs of youthful days spent at family farms, the Eggleston-Smith Farm in Shrewsbury and the Will Potter Farm in Chippenhook-and also images of the couple's later years in Florida.
One photo shows Harriet and Art with musical instruments in hand: Art played the acoustic guitar with Harriet balancing out the "act" on fiddle. The husband and wife team got many toes to tap on local floorboards at community dances from the 1940s through the 1960s.
In counting her blessings, Harriet is lucky to have children and great grandchildren around her. She is also fortunate to have younger siblings to toast her milestone: brother Fred Grant Smith of Burlington and sisters Bea Kallahan of Danville and Jean Hooker of Palm Coast, Fla.
Despite being wheelchair bound, Harriet is remarkably active. Every Thursday she plays bingo and scrabble at the Rutland Senior Center where she enjoys the Meals on Wheels weekly dinner. She also meets friend at church, and keeps up with the news through local newspapers and the Fox News network.
Harriet's daughter and son-in-law, Bette and Robert Parker of Rutland, have welcomed their "Hattie" to their home and care for her; they make sure that she enjoys life and remains an active member of the community.
While Harriet's memory has slipped in recent years, daughter Bette helps by having family photos close by to keep the past-and the thoughts of family members-alive.
"It's remarkable for someone to reach this age," Bette said, "and when it's your own mother, it's even more remarkable."
"And I have to say she's the best mother-in-law in the world," said Harriet's son-in-law, Robert Parker.
So, happy 90th birthday, Harriet Potter. Many, many more.