Robert Berkley Harper, Professor Emeritus, graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1962 and a Juris Doctorate Degree in 1971. He served as an officer in the United States Army and an Algebra teacher in Pittsburgh Public Schools prior to going to law school. At the University of Pittsburgh, Professor Harper taught Criminal Law, Evidence, Scientific Evidence, and Law and Education. He has written two books, Pennsylvania Arrests, Searches and Seizures (1983) and Handbook of Pennsylvania Evidence (2001) with a 2006 Supplement. He has also written law review articles in the areas of Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Evidence and Law and Education. Professor Harper retired from the University of Pittsburgh in June 2004.
Early life and education:
Born in Pittsburgh's Hill District on Webster Avenue, Robert Harper was one of ten children to Frank P. Harper and Oneida Grigsby Harper. Though coming from a large family, his mother worked diligently to provide for her children and always had room at the table for more. In return, Harper was a devoted son and brother to his family. Harper attended the Fifth Avenue High School. Before graduating in 1958, his high school guidance counselor advised him to forget about college and go to trade school to become a printer - the usual advice to exceptional Black students in the 1950s. His parents, neither of whom had completed high school, were also reluctant about his college aspirations because of the limited opportunities for Black people, even with college degrees. With no scholarships or loans available for lower-income households, and with parents who had limited means, Bob worked at the United States Post Office at night while attending the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, graduating with his bachelor's in math and education in 1961. Upon graduation, though he had a strong desire to teach, he enlisted in the U.S. Army commissioned as a second lieutenant. He served for almost four years, including a tour in Korea during the time of the Vietnam War, though he rarely talked about his military experience. He taught at the Armory School at Fort Knox after receiving a battalion adjutant assignment in Korea. He returned home after his discharge from the military and was hired by the Pittsburgh Board of Education where he taught Algebra at Liberty School, making him the first Black faculty member. In 1968, he decided to start his law career and was among nine other Black students admitted into the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, and one of three who graduated in his class. As a student, he impressed faculty with his maturity and dedication to his studies, making it evident to them he was serious about becoming a lawyer.
Legal and academic career:
After graduating from Pitt Law in 1971, he was hired by the City of Pittsburgh's Department of Public Safety as the Chief Legal Advisor to the Police Department. Once again, Harper was the first Black person to hold the position he found himself in. His job ensured that the rights of arrestees were upheld, as well as giving white police officers different perspectives. After an offer from his Alma Mater, Pitt Law, he would leave this position with the City of Pittsburgh to become the Assistant Dean of students and later, the first Black tenured full-time professor. Returning to his roots, he spearheaded a concerted effort to recruit more Black students. In 1976, he moved from administration to scholarship as an Assistant Professor of Law, making him the first African-American faculty member at the Law School. He taught Insurance and Education Law, but his true passions were in Evidence, Scientific Evidence, and Criminal Law. As a natural teacher, he loved his role in the area of Education Law and even taught legal education programs to lawyers, judges, police officers, teachers, and school administrators. In 1982, he earned his tenure and then full professorship in 1986. As a professor, Harper enjoyed his students and spent time getting to know them. He was invaluable for the advice he gave to students who sought his views. In total, he taught thousands of students in his 28 years of teaching. His publications include a major treatise on Pennsylvania Evidence, a definitive piece on searches and seizures during arrests in Pennsylvania, numerous law review articles, and other scholarly works. Harper also served on innumerable university and faculty committees.
Honors and awards:
In 2002, the University of Pittsburgh Law Alumni honored him with the Distinguished Alumni Award. Pitt Law also dedicated an award to Harper elected by members of the graduating class to select a professor whom they feel is most deserving of the Robert T. Harper Excellence In Teaching Award. The award is presented during the School's Commencement ceremony.
Personal life and death:
Robert B. Harper died October 12, 2021 at the age of 82. He was preceded in death by sisters Gwendolyn Chapman, Natalie Tomlin, Margaret Harper, Barbara Harper Burns, Bernice Lancaster and brothers Frank Jr, James, Oliver, Theodore, George, Gerald, Harry, and Donald Harper, John Hairston, and Nathaniel Hairston. He is survived by his brother Henry (Yvonne), his best friend since high school Richard Lee M.D., and a host of beloved family members, friends, colleagues and former students in Pittsburgh and across the country. He is remembered as the Patriarch of the Harper Family and as a brother, an uncle, a friend, and a neighbor you could always rely on. He was a devout Christian and was active in the Christian Tabernacle Church and later in life, at Mt. Ararat's Saturday Night Live service. His hobbies related to reading, writing, art, music and travelling. He traveled to well more than 20 countries, collecting African masks along the way and staying abreast of world as well as community issues. He was described as “the perfect dinner guest,” and remembered as a person who can fit in with any group. On March 20, 2022, the law school held a memorial in the school's court room celebrating his life.