The names of Reuben and Mildred Harpole are well-known to Milwaukeeans due to the couple’s half-century of community activism, education advocacy and support for the poor.
On Sept. 4 – Reuben’s 79th birthday – the Harpoles were honored with the Frank P. Zeidler Public Service Award at Milwaukee’s City Hall.
But what many may not know about the city’s “black mayor” – as Reuben is nicknamed – and his wife is that they have always been devout Catholics, inspired to live out their faith through the service of others.
“My work here is all about love, so I’d just like to say, I love you all,” Reuben said upon receiving the award.
Love, it seems, is really at the center of the Harpoles’ life – love of their family – which includes a son, daughter and two young grandchildren – their city, their church and, above all, their fellow man.
The couple was married on Aug. 29, 1959, as parishioners of St. Elizabeth Church, Milwaukee, and soon after began to seek out opportunities to improve their neighborhood and city.
Reuben spent 31 years working at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, retiring in 1997 as a senior outreach specialist at the Center for Urban Community Development. He also served as a special adviser to the president of the Helen Bader Foundation, and was responsible for a host of community-wide education initiatives, including college prep programs at Marquette University High School and the now-closed Campion Jesuit High School in Prairie du Chien. He was also involved in the creation of America’s Black Holocaust Museum and Harambee Community School, along with numerous other Milwaukee organizations.
“Reuben gets a lot of the public notice – as Mildred says, he’s the talker,” said Capuchin Franciscan Fr. Mike Bertram, the couple’s pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Church. “But when you talk with Mildred – that is a powerhouse right there. She is your classic power behind the throne.”
Mildred has served on the board of the Milwaukee County Cultural Artistic and Musical Programming Advisory Council, the City of Milwaukee Arts Board, Community Brainstorming Conference, Family Service of Milwaukee and TEMPO. She is a former administrator of Harambee Community School and held the post of Fair Housing Director for the state office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, working to assist the needy and homeless.
The Harpoles’ public service has been recognized with several other awards, including the 1993 Vatican II Award for Service in Society from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
“I personally believe that God is inside each and every one of us,” said Reuben. “If you go to the 25th chapter of Matthew, you’ll see that, when Jesus says, ‘Oh, you didn’t treat my people right, you didn’t visit me when I was in jail, and you didn’t come to see me when I was sick’ … he said when you do it to the least of these, my little ones, you do it unto me. So (when you mistreat someone) you never know if you’re mistreating God!”
Mildred describes herself as a “cradle Catholic” who learned about public service from her mother and older sister as a child in Cleveland.
“As a young person I worked with my parents, my mother particularly,” she said. “Our parish was constantly involved in outreach in the community that involved my sister and I, so we started out as children.”
Reuben encourages other Catholics to champion the accessibility of education, especially for young children.
“Reuben is always still very interested in community development and that’s happening, especially about service to the poor. He’s just a big champion of education, saying that if anyone is going to further their life or advance themselves or flat out get out of poverty, education is really going to offer that pathway,” said Fr. Bertram.
Reuben said one of his proudest accomplishments was the founding of the summer prep program at Campion in 1968, which allowed inner-city Milwaukee youth to attend college prep courses at the school over summer. He lists the achievements of former students with fatherly pride.
“We took 105 boys out there and the success of that program was fantastic,” he said. “The Jesuits and Milwaukee Public School teachers taught in that for the full month of July, and one of the young men became a professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and one is a medical doctor with a clinic in Greenview, Miss. Others are engineers, lawyers, accountants and they’re doing quite well.”
The Frank P. Zeidler Award is an especially fitting tribute to the Harpoles, since they knew Zeidler personally and, at the beginning of their marriage, lived on the same block of North Second Street as the retired mayor. Reuben credits Zeidler with helping him get his job at UWM, when Reuben was seeking solutions for the thousands of displaced families from the 13th ward who had lost their homes due to the construction of I-43.
“One time we were standing by the bus stop and he says, ‘Reuben, I can tell you the definition of politics in one sentence.’ And I didn’t believe him,” recalled Reuben. “And this is what he said … politicians call money resources, and politics is the control of limited resources.”
Mildred said the Zeidler award is a greatly appreciated validation of years of hard work.
“It makes me feel as though I have contributed something while I’m here on earth that is positive, and hopefully it will generate others to act to improve the community,” she said. “I think it’s this dedication to service for others (that) will bring us out of the present malaise that we’re in and will help us to have a better community.”
She feels that most of society’s ills could be remedied with just a little bit of compassion and selflessness.
“I think that something has happened and selfishness has taken the lead rather than a concern for our brothers and sisters,” she said. “There are so many needs and there are so many opportunities for individuals to help … and I see that Pope Francis has really set forth our obligation to reach out and be inclusive and to dedicate ourselves to God through helping others, and I think that that might bring about somewhat of a change.”