CLAREMONT — One day when he was a little boy walking along a country road in Burma, Ramsay L. Harris made up a melody that years later emerged as Colgate University's fight song.
"Something sort of bubbled up in me," he said, as if that event 80 years ago had happened only yesterday. "The melody came into my mind, and it stuck."
It stayed stuck for more than a decade. Harris grew up in Burma, where his parents were teachers, attended Rangoon College and graduated from Colgate, in New York state, in 1927. He revived the melody for a student show at Colgate, and it became the school's fight song, "The Old Maroon."
The same thing kept happening wherever Harris went. The schools where he taught English all have songs that he composed or lyrics that he wrote to existing music.
He taught at Redlands Junior High School and at Pomona College, then became headmaster of a now-defunct boys' school in Claremont.
Then, after getting a master's degree and teaching English at UC Berkeley in the 1930s, he taught at Chaffey College in Ontario, served in the Army Air Corps and taught at Burbank High School and finally at the Webb School in Claremont until he retired in 1968.
All these schools have songs that are the legacy of a man who says his mind "just seemed to work that way."
A composer and songwriter for most of his 87 years, Harris says he never studied music and just picked out tunes on a piano. He enjoyed composing, he says, and all his songs were gifts: They were never published under his name, and he never received royalties.
His best-known work is Pomona College's "Torchbearers," based on a Coahuilla Indian tune early students had heard in the 1880s while witnessing tribal dances in the mountains north of Claremont. Harris polished the music and rewrote the lyrics in 1930, and the haunting melody with its drumbeat rhythm is still popular with college glee clubs and choral groups all over the world.
The song concludes:
"Where bleak and barren the sagebrush rolled
Rise green orchards of fruited gold.
Glory to those who, with vision of old,
Gazed o'er fair Pomona, o'er fair Pomona."
Harris also wrote school songs called "Over the Years" and "Brave Hearts" at Pomona College. Although he left his teaching position there in 1933, he wrote "The Quest," a song celebrating Pomona College's 50th anniversary, in 1937.
Fifty years later, Harris was awarded the Pomona College Trustees' Medal in honor of his musical gifts to the school.
Presenting the award at centennial ceremonies last October, college President David Alexander told Harris: "Your contributions to the canon of the songs we sing at Pomona College is unparalleled."
The medal is on display in the living room of Harris' home on the campus of the Webb School, where he taught English, Latin, Bible studies, history, algebra and public speaking. His wife, Mary, taught French and Spanish and tutored some students.
Harris said three generations of his English, Scottish and French forebears were teachers in India, where he was born in 1900, and in Burma, where he lived until he went to Colgate.
'Wings of Freedom'
At age 16, Harris was conscripted to serve in the Indian Defense Forces during World War I. During World War II, when he taught meteorology and aeronautics for the U. S. Army Air Corps, he wrote "Wings of Freedom" for male choruses and military bands.
He wrote "March On, California" while getting his master's degree at Berkeley.
Mary Harris said she remembers singing the fight song while she was a student at UCLA, long before meeting her husband. She can still sing the words:
"Fight on, California
Go on and win this game
Once more may the glory
Around the fair unfold
And high in air the banner of the bear
Proclaim the blue and gold .
One of Harris' first gifts to the Webb School when he started teaching there was the comic "Peccary Song" that he wrote for fossil-hunting students who had formed what they called the Peccary Society. The school has its own museum of fossils, named for its founder, Raymond Alf, a neighbor of the Harrises.
To the tune of "A Bird in a Gilded Cage," the members sang:
"We're peccary men out looking for bones
In the wilds of this wild country
We'll find them and then we'll return again
To the little museum on the hill
We'll crate the fossilized dinosaur
We'll ship him collect, and then
We'll stand on the brink of the missing link
We're the Webb School peccary men.
Another gift to the Peccary Society was "Camille," named for a fossil camel the students had unearthed. Part of it goes:
"The ambulant debutante had the appeal
Of a moving mirage, and her name was Camille."
Harris does little composing now but continues with activities that he calls "the other side of my life."
These include bird-watching and inventing. His first invention, patented in 1932, was a device to keep ink from spilling from fountain pens. Then came a prop to hold books open. In 1978, he invented a hand loom that he says can knot hundreds of weaving threads "in a fraction of a second."
None of them has been marketed--nor has the collapsible doghouse Harris designed recently.
"These things just come to mind," he said, just as his songs do.