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Motherin the Middle

By Offering $200 to Addicted Women Who Agree to Have Their Tubes Tied, Barbara Harris Has Gone From Waitress to Lightning Rod

May 14, 2000|Sharon Bernstein

To get to the neighborhood where Barbara Harris and her husband, Smitty, have lived for nearly 20 years, you drive down Orange County's Beach Boulevard, passing trailer parks, motels and Knott's Berry Farm. Turn right at a liquor store in Stanton and you'll find a quiet community where some people live the most stable of lives and others come and go, their children moving into and out of the local elementary school as frequently as Barbara did when she was growing up, before she settled down in one house, with one man, forever.

You would never think, on meeting this husky woman with sandy hair tied back in a scarf, on accepting her offer of a tuna melt and a Coke, that she stirs people to the level of livid, twitching outrage usually vented on the world's Limbaughs and Hillarys. But then you would never peg Harris as someone who could get so worked up about an issue that she'd race around the nation putting up blunt message billboards. You'd never expect to see this friendly woman with a penchant for oversized shirts appearing on "Oprah" or in the pages of Time, calmly shrugging off the anger she engenders.

Given the story of her life, even Harris has a hard time picturing herself at the center of the sort of scene that unfolded last year in Oakland, beneath a billboard offering $200 to any crack-addicted woman who would get her tubes tied or go on long-term birth control. Yet there she stood, surrounded by angry, mostly African American women who, according to witnesses, heckled her as if she were a Klan grand wizard threatening to murder the black child she was embracing. "Where did you get that one?" one woman shouted, pointing to Harris' adopted son, Isiah. "Rent-a-kid?"

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There is one thing that Barbara Strother Harris has always known about herself: She was born to be a mother. Her dream was to have 10 children. She wanted to nurture them and keep them in school. She wanted to go to PTA meetings and school plays. She wanted to live in one place. It was not what her own parents had wanted. But Barbara wanted it very much.

Harris was born in 1952 in Lancaster, Pa., the second child of her father's second family. She thinks her parents grew up somewhere around there, near the Amish country. They moved to Tampa when Barbara was a baby, and then to Wilmington, Del. A year or two later, around the time that Barbara turned 5, they wound up in Las Vegas, where her father, Albert Strother, worked for a while as a card dealer. Ruth Strother, Barbara's mother, sold tickets at an amusement park. By the time Barbara was in high school, the Strothers had moved their four children and Joanne Ramanna, one of Albert's daughters from his first marriage, seven more times: to Stanton and Anaheim in Orange County; to Littleton, Denver and Colorado Springs in Colorado; to Ohio, and back to California. Wherever they went, Albert picked up a new job. For a while, he drove an ice cream truck. Then he worked as a restaurant manager. When Barbara turned 13 years old, she pretended to be 16 and worked in the restaurants that Albert ran.

Once, while the family was living in Florida, a man knocked on their apartment door. Apparently responding to Albert Strother's dark hair and olive skin, he announced that "Mexicans" were supposed to be living on the other side of town. Despite the doubts of some in his family, Albert considered himself white and was always saying bad things about blacks and Mexicans. The visitor's comment festered in his mind for years, Harris says. "Can you imagine somebody coming over and telling you that you belong on the other side of town?" she asks. "Although I don't mind it happening to my father because he deserved it. . . . It was kind of a taste of his own medicine."

Most of the time, even when the family was living in a motel in Colorado, the kids went to school. But neither Albert nor Ruth had finished high school, and they viewed work as a higher calling than sitting around a classroom, killing time until you were old enough to quit or get married. In the 10th grade at Magnolia High School in Anaheim, Barbara decided she was educated. "I could never communicate very well with my parents, so I wrote them a note. I told them I wanted to quit school and work full time. They said, 'fine.' " She got a job waiting tables at the International House of Pancakes in Buena Park. The next time the Strothers moved, Barbara didn't.

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