by Rita King
In the fall of 1982, I was a fourth grade teacher at Campus School, an elementary school on the grounds of Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. My principal and friend, Liz Whorley sent a message that said, “Come to the office as soon as you can.” This request was not uncommon, since I was our faculty’s leadership chairman.
When I entered the office, Mrs. Whorley said, “Sit down and read this letter from a man in Pearland, Texas”. The writer introduced himself by stating that he attended our school in the 1940s. He remembered that there were not enough basketballs, and footballs. He asked for a list of gym items needed so he could purchase them for us. In the last paragraph, he said a major donation was being made to MTSU. The letter was from Harry Bradley.
We decided more information was needed about this man before Liz responded to his request. I called Carlene Henry, a friend and secretary to the university president. When I told her about Mr. Bradley’s offer, she said, “Honey, don’t throw that letter away. He is communicating with us about giving the university an airplane.”
We discovered that Harry dropped out of high school, moved to Texas and became an errand boy for a major airline. When he could not find the washers needed for specific bolts, he received permission to make them in his garage. This was the beginning of his multi-million dollar enterprise.
Liz and the physical education teacher made a list of needed supplies and mailed it to him. During the next few months, Mr. Bradley called Mrs. Whorley often to talk about his donations and how his purchases were benefitting the children and teachers.
In conversations with Mrs. Whorley, Mr. Bradley revealed information about his recent emphysema diagnosis and life expectancy of a few years. After receiving the medical news, he had filed for a divorce and started giving his money away.
Mr. Bradley said he liked the way we spent his money. He especially enjoyed the humor and personal touch in the expressions of gratitude from the children and faculty. In our first thank you gift, each faculty member introduced himself or herself by cutting out a model’s picture from a fashion catalog or a magazine and placing it, with a personal note, in a plastic egg. The Easter basket of colorful eggs was mailed to him.
To welcome Mr. Bradley on his first visit to the school, four hundred children formed a double line to welcome him as he strolled through the reception formation receiving handshakes, drawings, cards and gifts. He thoroughly enjoyed each event planned in his honor.
During the next 2 years, Mr. Bradley visited our school on several occasions. Betty Jo, Harry’s sister, hosted dinners and parties for him in her basement. I was amazed by Mr. Bradley’s unassuming style. He was a stockily built, tall man. His daily attire consisted of a lightweight, bomber-type jacket, a golf shirt, and knit pants. On special occasions, he wore a sports coat and shirt or a polyester suit. When entering a building he always removed his baseball cap to reveal thinning, red hair.
A few months after his first visit, Mr. Bradley gave all of our teachers their first classroom computer. He converted a gym balcony into a computer lab. A large, console television was donated for the lobby. During this time, he was making major donations to two other schools in Rutherford county.
In the spring of 1984, Liz announced that Mr. Bradley was sending his pilot and helicopter to take the children in grades 3-6 on a ride over Murfreesboro. A parent said she did not believe her child when he excitedly shared this news during the evening meal. The entire student body waved and jumped up and down on the front lawn as the helicopter came into sight and landed.
The following January, Mrs. Whorley sent out a memo stating that Mr. Bradley had called and wanted the faculty and staff to be present when she opened a large box that had arrived for her. After dismissal everyone gathered in a classroom for this exciting event. Liz unwrapped a long mink coat. “Mrs. Harry Bradley” was written on the label.
Liz lived in the home place where she was raised on a farm nine miles south of Murfreesboro. In the spring, Liz and Harry were married in Mt. Tabor Church in the Gum community, where Liz was a lifelong member.
That summer, Harry chartered a bus to take approximately twenty of Liz’s Murfreesboro friends to Pearland. He had special plans for our visit. Our reception was in the country club where margaritas were handed out as we entered the door. We stayed in his lake house and in homes of friends. We toured NASA and had helicopter rides over and between the towers of Houston. He bought everyone a jacket in the golf pro shop, hosted a party for us at the lake house, had meals prepared. He treated us to dinner at the local country club and took us to lunch in a renowned country club near Dallas. When we returned to our rooms after each excursion, a unique gift from Harry was on each bed. The presents included a manicure set, a ring, a watch and a hair dryer.
In 1986 Harry called me at home and said, “Are you sitting down?”
I quickly responded, “I am now!”
He said, “How would you like to go to Australia in July with all expenses paid?” All I could say was, “Thank you!
Then he said, “After touring Australia, you will tour New Zealand’s two islands. Liz, three more friends and my sister, Betty Jo, will go, too.” He added, “There is some bad news. You’ll have to pay for souvenirs. There is more bad news because you’ll have to spend two days on Waikiki Beach and stay in the Hilton there on your way home.”
I said, “Thank you! I am thrilled!”
He said, “You can’t tell anyone this news for an hour.”
I found out later that Harry chose Australia as our destination because he asked Liz Bennett, Liz Bradley’s friend, to choose a place anywhere in the world to visit. She chose Australia because she read a book in second grade about “The Rock” in the outback and dreamed of climbing it.
Harry arranged for us to fly to Pearland and meet with a tour specialist in their home to plan details of our trip. As we sat on the floor around a large map of Australia, each individual was told to identify a city or area to include in our itinerary. That evening after dinner, Harry passed out $200 to each guest. He said to keep this amount of money with us in the future for emergencies.
Our tour included a cruise of Sydney’s harbor, Alice Springs, Ayers Rock, Melbourne, and the Great Barrier Reef. One afternoon, we traveled to an island south of the mainland. As the sun set, we wrapped ourselves in blankets and quietly stood on the shore. We were mesmerized as hundreds of penguins emerged from the ocean, waddled past us, and settled in their nests.
On New Zealand’s north island, two small planes took us through snow-covered mountains to a ski resort. The next day a helicopter took three of us to a glacier. After we glided to the middle of it, the pilot told us to lie down and create angels in the snow.
A highlight of our south island tour was a visit to hot springs. Two friends stayed in the tepid water too long. When they emerged, they were weak and wobbling as they walked, because they were so relaxed. We had to take them to their room and put them in bed.
The next day, we toured the quaint town of Christ Church and cruised through a fjord. In Queensland, we visited a sheep farm, viewed the sheering process, and had a New Zealand meal with a local family.
On our return trip, we were on Waikiki Beach for two days enjoying the water, fabulous food and beautiful views. When we arrived in Los Angeles, we changed clothes and went to Disneyland for the day. During our trip home, we realized that our twenty-eight day vacation had included twenty-one flights.
A few months later, I was with five friends visiting Liz and Harry in Pearland when Mr. Bradley asked us to ride with him to Sam’s Warehouse. A middle-aged, African American lady met him at the front door. After introducing us, he said, “I called this lady after reading a newspaper article about a fire destroying the kitchen in her church.”
When we were inside the store, he said, “Each one of you grab a buggy and follow us.” As we walked through the aisles, he asked the lady, “Don’t you need a microwave?” “What about silverware?” When she realized what was happening, her arms went up in the air as she cried and shouted repeatedly, “Lord Jesus, thank you!” When a buggy was filled with merchandise, he said, “Take it to the front and get another cart.”
As Mr. Bradley paid the bill, the cashier said, “Who are all of these women with you?” Someone responded, “This is Harry’s Harem”.
In 1987, Harry and Liz invited thirteen friends to go with them on a Caribbean Cruise. They said the group would include MTSU’s president and his wife, Dr. Sam Ingram and Lynette. Liz said she wanted us to participate in two talent shows during the cruise.
A friend designed and made harem outfits for us to wear during one contest. We took jeans, denim shirts and red handkerchiefs for our rendition of “Rocky Top” in the second performance.
When we had boarded the ship, Harry told us to come to his room as soon as we were settled in our cabins. When everyone arrived, he asked us to gather around him. He shared his latest surprise. We he told us to sign tickets for our snacks, meals, and drinks during the cruise. Harry had arranged to pay all of our bills.
When the evening for the first talent competition arrived and we appeared on stage, the MC asked, “What is the your group’s name? In unison, we responded, “Harry’s Harem”. He said, “We’ve heard that Harry paid for your cruise. Where is Harry?” We responded, “He’s in his room downstairs.” That was a true statement because Harry was not feeling well.
When Harry realized that his health was declining, he had a new home constructed for Liz on the golf course. They had been married between two and three years. During their brief time together, they enjoyed the children, grandchildren, friends, world travel and time together.
When the doctor told Harry he had a few weeks left, he said, “I am going to Murfreesboro to see my harem.” He called me and said, “I am coming to Murfreesboro for my last trip. Dr. Ingram and his wife are hosting a dinner for us in their home. This will be the last time I’ll see you. If I see one tear, I’ll leave.”
As we visited in the parlor of the president’s home, everyone chatted, concealing sadness. As usual, Harry entertained us with his stories. After the meal, he handed each individual a box containing a twelve place setting of gold-plated silverware.
That was the last time I saw Harry before he died. I always smile when I think of the great experiences he provided and the stories about his joy in giving. For example, when Polaroid cameras became popular, Harry bought a case of them to give family members and friends. During a visit to his Pearland home three of his sisters and his brother were there. Harry passed out small, boxed presents. Each sister received a ring with a miniature watch inside of it. His brother received a pocket watch. Each box, also, contained a small piece of paper with a number written on it. He told Betty Jo to open her box first. Her number was two. After all boxes were open, he led them to the front door. Four new Cadillacs were lined up on the street. The number indicated the car each sibling received.
During another visit to Murfreesboro, Liz told him that she liked bacon. Harry had a pig delivered to her house. Yes, it was alive!
In 1992, the year after my mother died, Liz called and said, “Since you don’t have a family, why don’t you spend Christmas week with me in Pearland?” For twenty-two years, I’ve been there for the holidays enjoying her home, delicious country cooking, visits with her children, grandchildren and friends, social events, church services, the two dogs, the cat, shopping and movies.