Sylvia Harper grew up in Silver Terrace in San Francisco, and went to Saint Mary's Cathedral High School, which was affiliated with the Christian Brothers' Sacred Heart High School. For a city girl, the remote campus in Moraga was enchanting.
"I loved that it was far enough away from San Francisco so I could get the experience of living away from home, but it was still close," she says. "And it was so small then. It was a very friendly time. Rheem had only one place to eat. People hitchhiked all the time. The fear factor wasn't there."
Her College years were filled with a busy social calendar and challenging schoolwork. She played intramural football, was a cheerleader, and both the Homecoming Queen and the "donut queen," admired for the daintily decorated treats she made after rising at 4 a.m. to work with the campus baker.
"In order to embrace life, you have to do everything," she says. "No matter where you go in life, you only go that way once, so go all the way."
The turbulence of the 1970s, with the Vietnam War, racial and gender equality struggles, and the hippie movement affected the student body. Her boyfriend, basketball star Maurice Harper Jr. '75, participated in a players' strike fomented by unhappiness over the dismissal of an African-American dean. Racial tensions occasionally simmered between some blacks and Chicanos, she recalls, but "I never looked at the skin of anybody. I just looked at their heart."
Harper started as a pre-med student, but switched to biology and psychology when the math classes got too difficult for her. But it was Kuregiy Hekymara, a lecturer in government and Collegiate Seminar, who made the biggest impression on her as a student.
"He was very tough, very meticulous. He demanded a lot of students," she recalls. "That was the hardest class I took. You had to exceed the expectations. It pushed you to be better. I never worked so hard in anybody's class. When I got an A, I really felt like I earned it."
After graduating and marrying Harper, she worked at the Emporium in San Francisco and had two children, daughter Cherisse in 1977 and son Maurice Leejon in 1979. While on maternity leave with Maurice, she applied to the San Francisco Police Department, then under a consent decree stemming from a discrimination lawsuit against a force that had been 85 percent white and 95 percent male.
Harper, who is 5-foot-3 and 110 pounds, worked hard to pass the grueling agility test and was accepted to the police academy.
"Our class was very watched," says Harper, an African-American breaking both gender and race barriers. "The women had to be tough because they were held to a higher standard. I always tried to retain my femininity. One (partner) told me 'you drive like you have two kids in the back seat,' and I told him that's because I do drive with two kids in the back seat."
The interpersonal skills that helped her succeed at SMC served her as a patrol officer who could diffuse tense situations through talk, and as a supervisor over sometimes resentful men. Promoted to head an unfriendly detective unit, she became one of the boys after she observed their morning crossword puzzle ritual and decided to join them.
"If the mountain can't come to you, you go to the mountain," she says with a laugh. "It broke a lot of barriers. Things smoothed out, and we became a team."
Harper held many positions over her police career, and in 2004, Chief Heather Fong promoted her to commander of the parking and traffic unit. Her personal life is also busy; she lives across the street from her childhood home and helps takes care of her infirm mother. Her husband, who taught history at Saint Mary's College High School in Berkeley for more than two decades, is now a vice principal at a Dream School in San Francisco.
The Harpers remain connected to Saint Mary's; Cherisse, a Stanford graduate who got married this summer, is pursuing a master's in counseling at Saint Mary's.
"The only sad part about College is that people come from all over, and then they go back home," she says. "I miss the people."