The Gregg Harpers | Up Close and Personal

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by Marilyn Tinnin

Gregg Harper was not the frontrunner and not even the runner up or the wild card when he entered the race for Mississippi’s third district congressional seat in 2008. There was nothing stereotypical in the primary campaign that summer when a crowded field of Republican candidates slugged it out for the nomination. Gregg, Rankin County’s Republican Party Chairman, had little money, no well groomed seasoned strategists to organize the campaign, no paid staff, and no great name recognition outside of Rankin County. With a core group of loyal friends who pitched in, along with school friends of both his son and daughter, and a wife whose idea of date night was to see how many signs they could put out on any vacant spot in the 27 county district, Gregg’s election was like a Cinderella story. He and his band of volunteers literally went door to door asking for support. It was the old way of doing things, but it was also the way he introduced himself to the electorate, and people responded. He was definitely one of them…a regular guy supporting a family and wanting to provide opportunity for all who aspire to better themselves. He looks younger than his 55 years and has a style that is more Boy Scout Leader than thundering orator, kingmaker or wheeler-dealer. He seems almost too real and too nice to have chosen to enter politics.

The son of a petroleum engineer and a very independent working mom, who recently retired at the age of 88, Gregg has one younger brother. His early years involved a series of moves as his dad’s job took them from Jackson to Texas to North Carolina to Jackson again, to California and back to Jackson. When he landed back in Jackson at Peeples Junior High School for eighth grade, the year was 1972. He has called Mississippi “home” ever since.

The Harpers were a close family, solid middle class America of the 1960’s. Perhaps because of the constant moving during Gregg’s early years and the lack of putting down real roots in those temporary places, the Harpers had not raised their boys in church. When Gregg began tenth grade at Provine High School, he met Carl White on the first day of school. It is Carl whom Gregg credits as “indirectly leading me to Christ.”

Carl, now Senior Pastor at Highland Baptist Church in Meridian, had probably never missed a Sunday of church in his sixteen years! He had never even met anyone who didn’t claim to be a Christian. He calls Gregg “a surprise” and someone who blew away all of his preconceived ideas of what an “un-saved” person must be like. “He was so polite. He was everything I thought a Christian should be and yet he had probably been to church about twice in his whole life!”

Carl invited Gregg to a Youth for Christ gathering, which at that time met weekly and was a great social network for teens all over the city. Gregg was more interested in meeting friends than figuring out his salvation that year, but week after week he was being drawn to the whole concept of faith in Christ and Christ was becoming more and more significant in his life. At the last Youth for Christ meeting of the school year, an altar call was given. Gregg went down and committed his life to Christ, and it was a sincere never-look-back kind of decision.

He began to attend church at Carl’s home church, Parkway Baptist which was at that time located on West Capitol Street in Jackson. Bear in mind that there was nobody at home waking him up and pushing him out the door to church every week. Gregg had no one forcing him through the motions. His conversion was very much the real deal.

Falling for Sidney

He chose to be baptized there and joined in the youth group activities and immediately noticed one very pretty girl, Sidney Hancock. She was two years younger and a year behind him in school. But she had a boyfriend at the time. Gregg was quite smitten. She was special. It was no surprise that he jumped in to ask her out the minute Sidney and her beau parted ways.

Carl laughs as he remembers Gregg’s first date with Sidney. It was very important to Gregg to sweep her off her feet – which he evidently did. Carl and Frances, his wife of 34 years, were also a part of Gregg and Sidney’s first date. Gregg’s father let them use his membership at the Petroleum Club in downtown Jackson. With a panoramic view of the city in its hey-day, it was a romantic evening for these high-schoolers. As Carl remembers, “It was a magical evening.”

Carl adds that the same thoughtful planning that went into his first date with Sidney is very much the basic method of operation for everything Gregg does. It is in his DNA to listen well, to assimilate the facts, consider the impact of whatever the decision, and to very thoughtfully follow through. Wishy-washy is not in the mix. Carl calls it “integrity.” Many others do, too.

Gregg was indeed smitten with Sidney. In fact, he admits that his sole reason for choosing Mississippi College above all other colleges had to do with the fact that Sidney would be there the very next year. He began and ended his four year tenure as chemistry major. His original plan was medical school. Even though he hung in there the whole time, he pretty much decided by year four that he had had enough! The thought of changing majors at that point meant more years in undergraduate school. He was not willing to do that if he did not have to. He applied to law school at Ole Miss and was accepted. He was probably not the first pre-med major who did exactly the same.

Gregg had always been fascinated by politics and interested in government. His first up close and personal encounter with the scene was in 1978 when he was asked to help with a phone bank during Judge Charles Pickering’s unsuccessful campaign for Senator Jim Eastland’s seat against then Congressman Thad Cochran. He was really hooked and from that moment on helped friends when they ran for local office, became involved in the Republican Party and basically “worked for free” for years simply because he loved the democratic process of government on every level. As Gregg says, “You get a lot of job offers when you work for free!”

Choosing Politics

His behind the scenes involvement in the Republican Party sent him to West Palm Beach, Florida as an official “observer” during the hanging chads controversy of the Bush and Gore Presidential campaign in 2000. He was a “legal volunteer’ for George W. Bush during the 2004 campaign in Ohio. He went on to advise Senator Jim Talent of Missouri during his unsuccessful 2006 campaign and was elected as the Rankin County Republican chair in that same year.

When he decided to toss his hat in the ring of the 2008 congressional race in the summer of 2007, Sidney says she was in some ways surprised and then again not surprised. “I had known since college that Gregg had a love for politics, but I had never thought he would actually enter politics. I guess I thought he’s an attorney and that’s what he is going to do his whole life. But when he started talking about it I thought, ‘well, if that’s what you really want to do, then that’s what you should do.’ And, too, I knew that if it had been me who wanted to do something that was going to be a total life change for all of us…he would be supporting me in it no matter what.”

That is the way Gregg and Sidney operate. It is definitely a great picture of whatever the Lord had in mind when He created marriage, being ‘One’ and the whole nine yards.

When the Harpers’ married in 1979, this seemingly all-American couple was focused on their careers. He was in his second year of law school at Ole Miss. She had completed nursing school at Mississippi College and signed on to work at Oxford Lafayette County Hospital while Gregg finished out law school. When law school ended and they moved back to the metro area, they were still focused on career. She worked in labor and delivery at Woman’s Hospital and later in surgery at Baptist, but having her own babies was just not in the equation at that point.

The couple shared a common love for traveling, and they did a lot of it. They came back to Brandon where Gregg opened a law office. Sidney describes a very fast and fun decade of travel and advancing up the ladder of their respective careers and then a sudden realization that ten years had gone by and “Wow. It was past time to start a family!”

Family and Unexpected Challenges

Livingston Harper was born June 24, 1989. They could not have been more excited. Sidney, as a nurse who had worked in labor and delivery and knew much about early childhood, became concerned early on when she felt like Livingston was not meeting his mile-markers. Their pediatrician was not concerned at first telling her that boys are slower than girls and Livingston was slipping in under the curve. Still, Sidney knew something was not as it should be. When she was already pregnant with their second child, Maggie, the pediatrician came by one night to tell them that he had now become concerned, that something was not exactly right, and that it was time to do some testing. The Harpers were devastated.

Gregg and Sidney describe their own panic and fear – especially after the test results gave them a batch of possible diagnoses – none of them good. And the additional fear was that whatever plagued their son would be some genetic problem that also plagued the child Sidney was carrying.

They had no definitive answers by the time baby Maggie arrived in early 1991. She was beautiful, apparently perfect…and they waited for test results. Nothing happened that told them anything.

A Diagnosis

Livingston was about four years old when one of their neighbors called Sidney one evening to tell her she had attended a workshop that day on behalf of Rankin County Schools where something called “Fragile X syndrome” was discussed. Everything the clinician described made her think of Livingston. Could she run over some brochures and other information Sidney might like to see?

Sidney was not insulted or intimidated. She was ready to find any information that would unlock the mystery of whatever was not regular with Livingston. Whatever it involved, she and Gregg were committed to helping their son be all that he could be…and it did not have to be President of the United States or anything like that. They just needed to know that Livingston rose to his potential – whatever that potential happened to be.

The Harpers learned much about  “Fragile X” over the course of the following months and then years. There was no doubt in their minds from the first time they read about it that this was the “thing” – the very out of the ordinary thing that plagued Livingston. A positive diagnosis came soon after they had already figured it out, but what happened after that has been a testimony to the faith and strength of the Harpers.

The first bit of good news has been that Maggie, their daughter, does not have Fragile X. And if they had known everything about “Fragile X” a year or two earlier they might never have planned on another baby, but once they were expecting her…well, whatever would be would be. There is significant data that indicates a high possibility that succeeding children will also have Fragile X. Sidney describes her pregnancy with Maggie as “traumatic” and “scary” – even thought she did not know at the time what the “thing” was that affected Livingston – but resolute in knowing that God was in charge and He would give her and Gregg the grace to deal with whatever the outcome.

The Way it is Today

Livingston, who is handsome and who can be quite engaging, is blessed to belong to Gregg and Sidney. At every stage of his development they have sought to find ways to assimilate him and everyone like him into mainstream situations in order to encourage their highest achievement. While Gregg was still practicing law before his election as congressman, he regularly employed interns from Pearl High School Special Education classes. As special needs children can often drive parents apart, Livingston has been able to bring Gregg and Sidney even closer.

Today Livingston is like a “pioneer” as one of the first participants in the Access program at Mississippi State University, a program for Special Needs young people and geared to helping them receive a college diploma and become productive members of society. Gregg was instrumental in helping launch this whole idea which is based on another program he helped implement in Washington through a dialogue with George Mason University. George Mason provides special needs interns to numerous congressional offices, one of which is Gregg’s. Their program for special needs has been a model for Mississippi State who sent representatives to study the what’s and how’s of a university experience for special needs children. The Harpers were great proponents of the Access program which opened its doors in 2010.

Livingston is a twenty-one year old who is loving his freshman year at MSU. His favorite class he tells me is Sid Salter’s American Government class. He may take more than four years to finish his degree, but will have something…something significant…to contribute to his state and to his country when all is said and done.

Twenty year old Maggie is a sophomore at MS State, majoring in Political Science and is on schedule to graduate a year early. She also has quite a vocal talent and has cut a CD demo with Grammy award winning Carl Jackson’s band backing her up. Maggie is not sure what career path she will pursue, but confesses, “I would never want to run for office myself, but I love to campaign!”

Sidney, who has retired from nursing these days, has found time to take up any number of hobbies in the last few years. She took up horseback riding at age 40 and enjoyed weekly rides on the horse Gregg gave her for a Mother’s Day gift for years until their new lifestyle made regular dates with “Chico” too irregular. She also took up piano lessons, another of those “always wanted to do” dreams. Slamming her fingers in the car door ended that short-lived budding career! What’s next? Maybe the violin!

Gregg is more seasoned and ready to meet the challenges of the future than he was as a novice congressman in 2008. As a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, a member of the sub-committee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, House Administration, and a representative of the Republican Steering Committee, Gregg’s plate is full and the demands on his time could be overwhelming if he let it be. He graciously stands at center stage and focuses on individuals, problems, and solutions that work.

He is, as his childhood friend Carl says, the picture of “integrity.” Well and good…but kind of difficult in today’s world. Still, it is quite encouraging to meet a Gregg Harper anywhere. He is a public servant, in the real sense of the word. And that is so passé in this old world. It is also one of those red, white, and blue kinds of events. Makes you want to wave a flag to know a guy like that is out there representing the rest of us.­

Trivia and tidbits on the Harpers:

Church Affiliation: Crossgates Baptist Church where Gregg is also a Deacon.

Worst thing about serving in Congress:  “Hands down, it is getting on a plane and telling your family good-by.”

Best thing: “…that you’re getting an opportunity to be in the fight and hopefully make a difference on some things. It’s one thing to discuss policy and it’s another thing to get down in the dirt and work it out.”

Greatest Positive Surprise about serving in Congress: “I probably went up there with a kind of “Elijah alone” feeling and it is not like that. There is a group of probably 25 of us and every week we cast our first vote of the week – is always either a Monday night or a Tuesday night – walk off the floor and straight to room 219 and we pray for each other, for the country, take prayer requests and pray for about 20 minutes before the second vote is called. ( ) There is also an option for a Bible Study that first night back. Wednesday morning we have a Bible Study with about 20 Republican colleagues and we rotate it among offices. Also there is a bi-partisan Bible study that meets weekly.”

Greatest Negative Surprise: “How quickly two years goes by and it’s time for another campaign!”

Favorite Bible Verses: Sidney: Psalm 28:7 “The Lord is my strength and my shield.”

Gregg: “Several!” One is Proverbs 21: 31 “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.”

What’s better about your marriage today than 32 years ago? Gregg and Sidney in unison: “Comfort. We are so comfortable and content to be together.”