She was an author, philanthropist, humanitarian, community activist, public servant, one-time U.S. Senate candidate, business owner and life-long advocate for education.
But above all, she cherished being a mother, grandmother, great grandmother and family matriarch—one who considered flexographers family and one who did her utmost to encourage them on to success, cheer their accomplishments and push them on to greater endeavors.
By all accounts, she was: generous, gracious, resourceful, passionate, poised, inspiring, genuine, kind and caring. Her name is indelibly etched, alongside her husband’s, on the annals of the package printing and converting industry, particularly the educational institutions that continually repopulate its talent pool.
At many of those schools, buildings, programs, laboratories, campuses and scholarships carry the highly familiar and instantly recognizable Harper affiliation–honoring Katherine and Ron as the charitable benefactors that the industry, as a whole, knew the couple to be.
And now, Katherine Harper, an active member of Flexographic Technical Association for 30+ years, stands as the newly inducted and 64th member of FTA’s Flexo Hall of Fame. Her election, true to her trailblazing reputation, marks another first, as she joins Ron (1998 inductee) as the only husband and wife team to enter the prestigious society—each in their own right—further expanding their legacy. To many, that’s the way it was meant to be.
Life & Career
Born Katherine Hodges in Charlotte, NC, she met Ron Harper in 1951 and the pair married in 1952. Five children—Daniel, Jim, Christopher, Margie and Georgia—followed, as did 20 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren.
In 1971, Ron and Katherine founded their manufacturing company Harper Corporation of America and installed facilities in Charlotte and eventually DePere, WI, then positioned affiliated companies at locales worldwide. In time, she held titles of president and co-founder Harper Corporation of America; chief operating officer and president, Harper Companies International; president and COO, Harper Love Adhesives Corp; president and COO, Harper Machinery Corp; president and COO, MSC Harper Distributing Corp; and president of Harper’s licensee in Bangkok, Thailand named Harper/Asia Pacific.
Katherine, who detailed the company history in her book, The Longer I Live, The More I Learn, was no stranger to leadership roles in organizations, serving on and leading a number of committees and boards throughout the flexographic world. She chaired FTA’s Annual FORUM and INFOFLEX in 1995 in Orlando, FL, becoming the first woman to do so.
Earlier, 1990, she co-chaired FTA’s groundbreaking educational fundraising campaign, known as the, “One Million In Two Fundraising Campaign.” A total of $800,000 was raised or pledged between 1990 and 1992, and while short of the goal the effort was considered a success. Corporate donations ranged from $5,000 to $100,000.
In 1999, based on her commitment and support of flexographic education, FTA bestowed its President’s Award, saluting her contributions to the industry at large and saluting her support of FTA and other associations, including TAPPI, AICC and The American Red Cross.
Most significantly, in 2007, FTA was in the midst of preparing its Technical Education Services Team (TEST) program. Its goal was to author, update and host state-of-the-art curriculums to meet the needs of an ever-changing industry. When Katherine and Ron were presented with this aim and a sound business plan, they decided to give a $1 million gift to TEST to help make the program’s vision a reality.
“We believe this will prove to be one of the most important projects ever undertaken by the organization and that it will make a significant positive difference in the success and lives of both current and future flexographers,” the Harpers wrote in FLEXO’s October 2007 issue. “We believe that the potential for rapid dissemination of information, as envisioned in the TEST business plan, can make an unbelievable difference in the future global quality and growth of the flexographic process.”
Citing specific tenets of the TEST plan, such as its standardized curriculum, accreditation program for instructors and teachers and the FFTA Virtual Print Campus (now named the TEST Virtual Campus), Katherine and Ron shared FTA’s vision of bringing relevant, constantly updated education services to current and potential future flexographers.
TEST is just one of many examples of their desire to inspire future generations to pursue a path in the world of flexography. Listing out all the Harper’s charitable endeavors is near impossible, as there are so many. They include:
- Foundation of Flexographic Technical Association’s Ron and Katherine Harper Scholarship
- The Harper Campus, Harper National Flexographic Center and Ron and Katherine Harper Scholarship Fund, at Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, NC
- The Katherine Harper Hall, at Appalachian State University, Boone, NC
- The Harper Lab of Flexography, at the Flexo Trade School of Fort Mill, SC
- The Harper Endowment, at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, CA
- The Harper Scholarship Fund and Harper Flexo Technology Wing, at Fox Valley Technical College, Appleton, WI
- The Ron And Katherine Harper Scholarship Fund and Harper Center of Graphics Technology, at Dunwoody College of Technology, Minneapolis, MN
- The Katherine Harper Teacher’s Education Fund, from the Phoenix Challenge Foundation
Former FTA President Mark Cisternino, a Hall of Fame member himself and who had the chance to work with Katherine on a number of occasions throughout his career, recalled her overwhelming generosity as “one half of the greatest philanthropic couple in the history of the flexo industry,” at the time of her death in 2014 (coincidentally occurring at the end of the very week that FTA’s FORUM was held).
“Katherine’s work routinely began when someone told her ‘It can’t be done,’” Cisternino reminisced. “Her many successes in life were a direct result of this inability to sit idly by and let others call the shots. Katherine and Ron were instrumental in establishing so many educational initiatives around the globe. Their significant positive impact on students of all ages cannot be overstated.”
Paul Lancelle, Hall of Fame member, upon learning of the selection, remarked, “Katherine was truly one of a kind and certainly cast a large influence on so many people in this industry, both in unison with Ron and in her own right.”
He continued, “For some reason, I still don’t completely understand, they both took me under their wing early in my flexo career, guided me toward involvement in FTA and other industry initiatives. She just seemed to have a special knack for connecting people. I will be eternally grateful. Katherine paved the path for a lot of women that followed her in this industry, breaking down a lot of barriers along the way and making FTA a much more diverse and well-rounded association, overall.”
Jean Engelke, another recent Hall of Fame inductee, noted, “She demonstrated a tremendous commitment to the industry through her business and her gracious donation to CPCC with the Harper Campus to house the print department. …There would be no program there if it weren’t for her support.”
Joe Tuccitto, FTA’s director of education, himself a new member of the Hall of Fame, offered, “Katherine was one of the most passionate members of our industry when it comes to flexo education. I am so proud to share the honor of being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2023 with her.”
Bettylyn Krafft , director of The Phoenix Challenge, remembered, “Katherine Harper was one of the most wonderful individuals that I have ever known. She believed in encouraging people to do what they excel in and enjoyed in life. She was always an inspiration to others. She was my employer (at one point in my career), my friend, my mentor, my surrogate mother and one of my biggest cheerleaders.”
Krafft continued, “She encouraged me every step of the way in starting the Phoenix Challenge Foundation. Because of her encouragement, I know I will continue to strive to build the Phoenix Challenge Foundation and inspire young people to excel in, and enjoy, a wonderful career in flexography. I think of her each and every day. She is missed deeply.”
Lee Harper, current president of Harper Corporation of American, learned of Katherine’s induction and exclaimed, “I am so proud of my grandmother, who to this day continues to amaze me. She is totally deserving of being amongst the best of the best in the industry—along with her partner and mentor, her husband Ron Harper. She was a true pioneer. There was no just Mr. Harper in this industry without her name next to his and vice versa. Her name was just as big as his. It makes perfect sense they are together in this amazing group of individuals—enshrined as the first married couple in a true legacy fashion!”
Lee elaborated on his true admiration for his beloved grandmother. “As far as she is concerned, she was who she was and did what she did because she felt it was the right thing to do—the right thing for an industry, community and employer. She did it for who she was, not because she was a woman but because it was right.
“You better believe. If anybody ever doubted her, they had better be prepared to get out of her way and be proven wrong. She was just a great person, a great friend, a leader and most importantly a great mentor,” he stated. Then he offered this observation, “She would be humbled and honored by this. I can also imagine that after her acceptance speech and after hugging every single prior FTA Hall of Fame member, she would say to the onlooking crowd, ‘OK folks, time to step it up, who’s up here next?’”
Lee acknowledged and took pride in the fact that Ron and Katherine always operated side-by-side, supporting each other and over the years taking turns in allowing the other to shine as an individual. They often spoke in unison.
That was evident in a statement made by the couple themselves. “We believe that the key to any successful endeavor—and a happy life—is education,” the Harpers said of FTA. “That is why we choose to support education in an industry that has been so good to us and to an association that has been one of the primary resources for our education.”