08/18/2002
Gebhart: H.A. Harper Sons: A family in business for the long haul
Ed Gebhart , Times Columnist

ED GEBHART
I am never overly impressed by businesses that advertise "Founded in 1969" or "In Business Since 1981" or "Incorporated in 1958." To me, those businesses haven't passed the test of time. Heck, they're not even as old as I am.

But when I see a business card that says "H.A. Harper Sons Inc., General Canvas Work Since 1906," well, that's a different story. There's an outfit that's been putting up and taking down awnings for 96 years. They're obviously in it for the long haul.
"We'll hit the 100 mark in four years," says Blair Harper, the firm's vice president. "Not many businesses have been around that long and even less have kept the business in the same family. I'd like to live to celebrate our 100th year and maybe a couple more years to spare."

Harper has been in the business since he was a teenager, playing hooky from school so he could help his father, company founder Hiram A. Harper, hang awnings and reupholster furniture. Since he's still climbing ladders at an age when many men have difficulty climbing stairs, he's a pretty safe bet to celebrate the firm's Centennial.

His brother, H. Lewis Harper, former Chester fire department chief, and uncles once worked in the business. Now Blair's daughter, Adele Warner, sits in the president's chair; and her daughter, Jen Scaramuzza, is secretary-treasurer. Blair remains the firm's super salesman.

He got his only real break away from the business when he joined the Navy during World War II, a 17-year-old, 117-pounder ready to lick the world. Naturally, the Navy put him in the sail locker on board the mighty battleship USS Texas.

"We did boat covers, gun covers, even body bags," he said. "But at general quarters, I was what they called a 'hot shell man' on the 3-inch gun. That meant I had to pick up the red-hot shells with asbestos gloves when they were ejected from the barrel and toss them overboard. Once in a while, they'd let me fire a gun."

Harper and the USS Texas fought on both oceans and took part in such memorable battles as D-Day, Southern France, Okinawa and Iwo Jima.

Working with his father after the war wasn't nearly as exciting, but it was a living. "The army gave veterans $20 a week for 52 weeks if you didn't have a job. My dad paid me 28 bucks a week, so I really worked for a lousy $8 a week."

At the time, there were eight awning firms in Chester. Competition was fierce. Only Harper has survived. Prospered would be a better word. The firm dominates the lower portion of Delaware County and has a strong presence at the seashore, covering an area along the coast from Brigantine to Cape May, N.J.

"We have approximately 800 clients we service," said Mrs. Warner, "putting awnings up in the spring and taking them down in the fall.

Harper got into the seashore market through his father's friendship with the late Howard Stainton, a Chester native and proprietor of Ocean City's only department store. According to Harper, Stainton was "the John McClure of Ocean City," referring to the legendary Delaware County political leader.

"We did some work for Mr. Stainton's store and he recommended us to his friends," Harper said. "The seashore business just took off."

It was through another friend, the late Sun Oil executive Andy MacMurtrie, that the firm got a major boost on the home front.

"Thanks to Andy, we got all the business for the Sun Oil fleet of tankers, and that was when Sun really had a sizeable fleet. We did boat covers, mattress covers, repaired furniture in the captain's quarters and throughout the ship," Harper said.

Harper has done work for Nilon Brothers, when they were the nation's leading concessionaire, and for the late Lou Kapelski, when he ran the Chester-Bridgeport Ferry. "We covered all the ferries' life boats," Harper said. "Not too long ago, I saw those same lifeboats on another ferry, still with my covers."

One of Harper's more memorable jobs was on the Colony Hotel in downtown Chester or, as he calls it, the "private club" of John Pew, William Wolf and Bill Reilly.

"What a crew that was," he said. "A Protestant, a Jew and an Irish Catholic. They did everything first class, even specified brass poles for the awnings."

More recently, he did all the terrace work for a swanky new restaurant in Radnor, the Passerelle.

Harper lost his wife recently. She was the former Mildred McKeone of Prospect Park. Like so many county couples, they met at the old Great Leopard Skating Rink.

"I accidentally tripped her while we were skating," Harper recalled with a smile. "As I helped her up I said, 'I guess you fell for me'."

Mildred's granddaughter, Jen, succeeded her as the firm's secretary-treasurer.

Blair Harper, surrounded by family and a cadre of loyal employees, plows on to his firm's 100th anniversary. If he doesn't fall off a ladder, he's a pretty good bet to make it ..with a couple of years to spare.


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