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Paul HarperPaul Harper

John Stanko: Hello, this is John Stanko, back once again for a talk with one of our 2009-2010 Urban Heroes. And as we’ve said at the start of each interview, an urban hero is someone who is serving our community but may not be noticed serving because they are doing it in a very grassroots way and may not get all the attention that maybe some others in the community receive. And right now I have someone on the phone I have not met, Paul Harper. Paul, welcome to the Urban Heroes program.

Paul Harper: Thank you.

JS: Paul, can you tell us a little about yourself. I think when I just called it said it was Kindred Hospital. So, tell us what you are doing there and what your role is.

PH: I work in the central business office and my job is to verify insurance for potential patients. Central business office covers the Pittsburgh area and Cleveland proper. And in those two cities, there are eight facilities.

JS: What is Kindred Hospital?

PH: Kindred Healthcare is a long-term acute care facility and a skilled nursing facility. We take patients that are discharged from acute facilities like UPMC and western Pennsylvania hospitals who need long term care or some type of additional care. That is our forte here. You have to pretty much be very sick on a ventilator to be clinically approved to come into our facility. And once you are in here, then we make you well.

JS: So it is a resident facility? It’s not a hospice where you are providing care for people at home?

PH: No it’s not a residential facility. I wouldn’t quite call it residence, it is a hospital. But it is a facility. It has nothing to do with home care.

JS: How many facilities are there in the Pittsburgh area?

PH: We have one on the North Side, which is our skilled nursing facility. There is one in Beaver, PA, which is another long-term acute care facility. And the facility work in is on Steubenville Pike in Oakdale, PA, which is kind of like the main hub of longterm acute care facility.

JS: How long have you been involved with Kindred?

PH: Going on three years now.

JS: You’re liking it so far?

PH: Yes.

JS: So, is this your background, hospital and healthcare?

PH: No, actually my education and my background are music. I played trumpet for 24 years. I went to Philadelphia Music Academy in 1971 as a freshman. And then I did two years a music college in Daytona Beach, Florida. I have a trumpet and a viola minor. I was the marching band trumpet section leader. I was the concert band section leader. And I played in a couple of groups too. Even before I went to college, I was with some local groups in Philadelphia, which is my hometown. And after I got out of school, I played with some pretty well-known groups. First, Choice, which was a disco group in the 70s. I played with Sister Sledge, in groups called Blue Magic, Paramel, Blue Note and some other groups in Philadelphia. I did some recordings too with Kool and the Gang, the Jacksons ...

JS: So, you were really in deep into the industry?

PH: Yes, I was. I played for twenty-four years. In 1983, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease and that caused me to change my lifestyle.

JS: Were you doing a lot of traveling? Were you traveling and performing?

PH: Yes, that was my main forte. I spent eleven years on the road, traveling with the groups that I mentioned—traveled all over the world. It’s easier to say where I haven’t been.

JS: That must have been quite a transition for you.

PH: Yeah, it was. Although I do have to say I was kind of ready for it. Eleven years on the road is a long time. I was into my thirties at the time and you kind of want to settle down a little bit. So it wasn’t a bad transition. And I actually got into banking and finance when I left music. So I spent some time there. And after I left that is when I got into health care.

JS: How did you get to Pittsburgh?

PH: I came to Pittsburgh in 1979 with Sister Sledge during the Pirates’ run for the world championship. They used We are Family for their theme, which was our hit record and naturally we were invited. We came and played several times here in Pittsburgh during that time.

JS: I remember them singing at one of the World Series games. Were you there?

PH: Yes, I was.

JS: So, that was your introduction to Pittsburgh. It must have been pretty favorable.

PH: Absolutely: winning town, great atmosphere, nice people.

JS: So, you end up in Pittsburgh. You said you were in banking and finance. Is that what brought you here?

PH: Actually what really brought me here was I met a young lady and we decided we wanted to be together. We were actually living in Philadelphia and we got married in July, 1985. Our first child was born here in Pittsburgh. My wife had come to Pittsburgh to visit friends and family for a baby shower. She was very pregnant with our first child. And my daughter Carly was born very premature. She was almost 2 and a half months, three months premature. She was multiply handicapped at birth and still is. She is blind. She had seizures. She was confined to a wheelchair and other medical issues. And the medical team and the medical community in Pittsburgh was a lot better than in Philadelphia, so we decided to stay. And that was 22 years ago. My daughter will be 23 on October 1st.

JS: How is she doing?

PH: She is doing well. Naturally, she still has those issues. But she is stable. She is happy. She is the light of my life.

JS: What was that like? What was that season of life like when she was born and you were facing all the special needs and challenges she had?

PH: In a sense, it was difficult simply because it was new and different. You’re never interested in having a child like ours when you are young and married and just getting ready to have a child, your first child. But it wasn’t too bad. I think that the experiences I had in my previous life and also my faith helped me get through it.

JS: Tell us about your faith. How did that get involved? How did that play a role in your life?

PH: That God will lay out a road for you to follow long before it’s your turn to even follow it. And I just never really questioned why I had this child. I felt honored. I don’t feel God gives special needs kids to just anyone. I think he gives them to special people who will look after them and make sure that they are healthy and safe. I felt blessed when it happened. I guess you could call it another show.

JS: What did it do for your life in general? Certainly as a father, it had implications. But how do you think it broadened you or affected you in general?

PH: Well, now you have to travel the road that is different from the one you anticipated. You get to be flexible. You get to be more understanding. You look upon children differently. When you have a special needs child, you kind of become an advocate for children. And that pretty much started me doing that. My daughter went to Western Pennsylvania School for Blind children. I was on their Parent Teacher Organization. I was in the Father’s Club. I did fundraising for the Make-a-Wish Foundation. It just kind of sets you off in a different direction. It is also a challenging direction. But like I said, it’s up to you to just step up to it.

JS: How many other children?

PH: I have one other child. I have a son, who is nineteen. He is very healthy. He is a sophomore at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is also a trumpet player and doing quite well. I’m very proud of him.

JS: Do you stay involved with your music at all?

PH: No, not like I used to. I had a stroke back in 2004 and it affected my lips. So I don’t have the opportunity to play anymore. And I had what I would assume to be a very satisfying career in music. So when I did play, I played with my son and practiced with him. On “bring your father to school” day, we would play duets when he was at Rogers Middle School and CAPA high school.

JS: He went to CAPA?

PH: Yes.

JS: I see so they are going to be a site for the G20. That’s pretty wild.

PH: It is.

JS: So, you are pretty much not involved in music. You know, it’s interesting. Sean Jones, his wife is one of our urban heroes. We interviewed her last week.

PH: I know Sean.

JS: Paul it seems to me… you’ve talked about some major transitions in life, some things that really could have devastated people. But you talk about them rather matter-of-factly and you seem like you are just on top of them. I’m not saying that you don’t have struggles. But is that a pretty accurate statement?

PH: I would say that’s accurate. I just have a deep faith. And I just believe that God will not give you anything that you can’t handle. I believe the things that he gives you are challenges to expand your growth as an individual and as a child of God. And I feel like I have always been well-grounded. I grew up in a nuclear family. My mother was a school teacher. My father was a postal worker. I had a private school education in Philadelphia. I had the opportunity to go to college. I had world experiences. And all those things grounded me to handle the things that come along in life. That’s it. If God pitches it, I swing at it. If I hit it, great. If I don’t, I just keep swinging.

JS: But you know he’s not throwing at you?

PH: I know he’s not throwing at my head.

JS: Where did you get your faith? Where did you get your grounding? Was your family church going people?

PH: Yes. I remember going to church with my grandfather when I was very young. He went to AME Episcopal Zion Church in Philadelphia. He was a member of the trustee board. I went to Germantown Lutheran Academy. My family was Lutheran and I went to Germantown Lutheran Academy for 3 years in Philadelphia where it was like going to Catholic School but it was Lutheran. We studied the Bible. We had religious classes.

We had chapel everyday. And as a musician, you’re always searching for oneness with something. So I dabbled a little bit in Buddhism. I dabbled a little bit in Kyo.

I dabbled a little bit in the Church of Scientology, which was very positive back in the early 70s. A lot of top jazz musicians were studying that. It’s not actually a religion. It’s more of a lifestyle more or less. If I’m choosing the right words, I’m probably not and never will be. But I thought that he had a good vision as to how to live your everyday life. I studied Islam for a long time almost 15 years.

And then I became scoutmaster at St. James AME church through my son. I sent my son to join a Cub Scout back there and got sucked in as a volunteer. I was an assistant cub master for a while and then there was a need for a Boy Scout troop, for a leader. And I tried that and liked it very much. I liked working with the older boys. And after eleven years of being a scoutmaster, I finally joined St. James AME Church.

JS: We are delighted we didn’t lose you. We kept you in the faith. So are you still involved in Scouts?

PH: Yes, I am. That’s my “give back” so to speak. There is an extreme need for mentoring and positive role models in the African-American community. I’m able to do that through scouting. I’m able to touch the lives of children one child at a time. Children who in the past may have come from a bad hood. Children that have walked that path and are still walking it. I see some of my graduates and some of my ex-scouts regularly. And it makes me proud.

JS: Some who are listening or reading may be thinking. “Scouts, isn’t that kind of outmoded? Isn’t that kind of outdated?” But you feel that it’s relevant and fits what you need to be that mentor.

PH: Yeah, I do. Let me put it to you this way, scouting has basics that we can all live by. A Boy Scout today is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Those are the Scout laws which we ask all of our kids to live by. The scout oath is: “On my honor. I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country. To obey the scout law, to help other people at all times. To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.” So, the basis of boy scouting is good character.

What I do along with my leaders is that we take those basic principles and we apply it to the kids in our community. And we make it fun at the same time. I mean, we aren’t going to climb Mt. Rainier or anything. You need to know that being trustworthy is an important thing in life. If you can’t be trusted, you can’t be shown things that can benefit you in life. You won’t be given the opportunity to lead, which is important because you can’t be trusted. So the basic credos of Scouting are both character building and spiritually building. And those are the things that you need to be a total man.

JS: Like Paul said in one of his letters such things as, there is no law. It’s these things that are not law that are necessary. They are important for life and you are finding a way to impart them to our young men. How many are in your scout troop now?

PH: I have now probably about ten. I had sixteen last year but I had some graduates that I’m all very proud of. I’ve had five eagle scouts in the last six years. I’ve had boys to go on go to college, graduate and move on into manhood. A couple of them are coming back to continue their work with young men in our troop again. And those are the ones that I am very proud of. You can’t fix them all but if you can fix a majority of them, it lays a pretty good groundwork to make a change in your community.

JS: What do you see for yourself in the next 5-10 years? What’s on the horizon?

PH: More of the same with a little change. I’ll be 57 this month. I want to start grooming two of the young men that have graduated from my troop to take over for myself. And by the way, Jay Gilmer is one of my assistants. He is a tremendous asset.

JS: Yes, he nominated you for the program. He’s a board member here at the Center for Urban Biblical Ministry. And we value his input. So, I understand exactly what you are saying.

PH: I didn’t know that it was him. I actually just went to the website. And was looking through your website and said, “Hey. I know him.” That was his doing.

JS: I mean the day we put the applications out, he sat down and wrote out three names. And all three of them were star performers in the community. That’s Jay. He gets things done.

PH: Yes, he does. I don’t know what I’d do without him. He’s been with me now about three or four years. His son is in the troop and he is a great asset. We work very well together. I’d like to deliver our program to the kids in a way they’d understand it. And Jay comes from an educational, spiritual point of view and so we make a very good team. And we’ve done good things with that troop.

JS: So, you are looking to hand off some of what you are doing to a younger generation, leave a little legacy. What else? Any?

PH: Well, that’s about it. Just continue trying to be a good husband and a good father and stay active in my church. I recently was nominated by the pastor, Rev. James Murray, to the trustee board.

JS: Congratulations.

PH: Thank you and I just want to continue doing work in my church. And doing work in my community, boy scouting until I can’t.

JS: How long is your term for on the board?

PH: It’s year by year. And this is coming up on the end of my first year. We have a conference on the 8th of August. And that’s normally where the trustees are put in and re-voted on again.

JS: Tell us a little bit about your wife.

PH: Well, she’s a lovely lady, born and raised here in Pittsburgh. She is the caregiver. She takes care of our daughter while I go out and work. And she’s a great asset to me.

JS: What influenced your life? I know your parents did but what else? Books? Movies? Things that you could look at that were real turning points for you.

PH: Music had a lot to do with it. I started playing trumpet when I was 9 years old. There’s not too much more you are doing at that age. You are just learning how to spell. Learning that long hand and that kind of thing. And music opened up a lot of avenues for me. I was lucky enough to study with Sigmund Hering. If you see Sean Jones, ask him who that is. He was principle trumpet for the Philadelphia Orchestra for many, many years. I was lucky enough. His books are still in publication.

I was lucky to have him as a warm body at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia. He gave me great grounding in classical music. I played classical music for seven years before I even thought about playing anything else; that gave me a good foundation. It kind of broke his heart when I started playing R&B and jazz. He wanted me to play in the Philadelphia Orchestra and so did I.

But the reality was I had to make a couple dollars and I liked playing R&B and jazz music. It afforded me a lot of experience both good and bad. And I think that wasn’t so much a specific experience. It’s just day-to-day things. I just always felt lucky. I always felt grateful to have my parents, to have the educational opportunities that I had. And I just wanted to do well and not squander them.

And really there were two books that really got me started on this whole thing. One was the Bible and the Holy Koran, which are two very similar books. The Holy Koran is just the Old Testament with a few little twists and turns here. But it’s all the word of God. But I think my spirituality has kind of kept me going throughout life—my belief in God and my belief that He is all things to everything.

JS: Any verse, any quote, any word of wisdom that seems to have been a guide, a guiding light for your life?

PH: Well, you mentioned Paul. I just think he is the greatest writer in the Bible. I think all of his books that he wrote are just so brilliant with wisdom and information and direction. Proverbs is another book of the Bible that I really like. And Psalms. I guess the serenity prayer. You know the one that says, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change. The courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” I think that’s probably it for me although not in the Bible itself.

JS: Well, that’s a lot so that’s not bad at all. So, somebody’s reading, somebody’s listening, Paul and you have a chance to say something to them. Maybe they are thinking how to invest their life or how to make a difference or impact. What words of wisdom would you have for them?

PH: I don’t claim to be a wise man, but I my focus has always been kids. Kids are our future. They’re a lot smarter than we are. You need to just listen to them and offer direction. And you’d be surprised what they grow into. That’s always been my thing: children. And whatever I can do for a child I’ll do it. Whether it’s tying his shoe for him when he’s about to trip over it, or taking him to the library or putting a computer together for him. Anything I can do for a child because we as a people have a tendency to look at the now and not the future. Our children are our future. We are mortgaging that. Not so much with policy and politics. But we are not feeding our children educationally. We aren’t feeding them spiritually. And those are the things you need in order to be a good human being. You need to be a good human being and you need to be one with God. If I could say anything to people, it would be “Take care of your kids. Be one with your God. And walk by faith, not by sight.”

JS: Anything else that’s on your agenda to do? Anything else that you’d really like to do?

PH: I’ve been really lucky. As I’ve said I had a really good education. The only places I have not been are Africa and Russia. I’d like someday to maybe go to Africa.

JS: We take trips all the time. Maybe you can go with us. We are going in February. We have done a lot of work in Africa over the last ten years and it changes your life. It’s quite something.

PH: I would love to do that. I’ve been really close. I’ve been to the Middle East. I’ve been to the Far East. I’ve seen poverty. I’ve seen a lack of wealth. I’ve seen what an education can do for people, which is great for their country. So I would like to do that. It would be great.

JS: And if kids are your thing, there is just a huge need. I mean the AIDS orphans situation there with how many parents and grandparents have perished. And you just don’t have orphanages here anymore like you do there. And it’s just such an opportunity. And again the opportunity for men of color, to provide – its not even role models—its just men that are there, that function. It would be a great opportunity. Paul, I have enjoyed [our time]. We could go on and I’m going to leave the door open. I do some other things for radio and maybe I could talk to you more. I would like to express our appreciation from the Center for Urban Biblical Ministry for what you do for the community, how well you serve, how focused you are. It is no surprise and is certainly a pleasure and an honor to have you in the Urban Heroes program. And we certainly look to more reports from Paul Harper that we can pass on to our readers and listeners. So, thank you so much for what you do.

PH: Thank you. I am honored by this. I have always felt that there are a lot of African-American men like myself who are just down in the trenches trying to do their thing—trying to be a good father, trying to be a good man. Just because I don’t dribble a basketball or catch a pass, no one knows that I exist.

And I appreciate the opportunity to let people know that there are good solid African-American males in this country that are focused and doing the right thing. And thank you for taking the time to do this call. And anything I can do for your ministry, for your radio, I would love to do.

JS: Well, that would be an honor. And certainly, we will look to you for the future to nominate those that you know who we can put forward as people who are worthy of honor but may not receive it as we said at the beginning of the show. Thank you.

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