KATY MAGAZINE | DECEMBER 2018
by Natalie Cook Clark and Katrina Katsarelis
Born on November 15, 1918 the same year that marked the end of World War I, Gertrude Harris just celebrated her 100th Birthday among family and friends. She is a living witness to Katy's peaceful, family-oriented history and is still the epitome of love and compassion. Here's her story.
CAPTION: Dressed in an elegant satin green suit and looking about 30 years younger than her age, Katy Magazine had the honor of meeting one of the most gracious women in Katy. Photo by Katrina Katsarelis
The year was 1933 when Gertrude met a handsome man in church and quickly married him. Gertrude, 15, moved to Katy with her new husband John Harris and never looked back.
"A fifteen year old bride today would be unheard of but in 1933 it was the norm," says Gertrude. The newlyweds lived on her husband's family property off Westheimer Parkway (near Greenbusch Road) where she still resides today with her daughter Ida. I never wanted to live anywhere else," admits Gertrude.
Katy through the years
While she's seen Katy through multiple time periods and historical events, Gertrude says Katy has basically always stayed the same. "Even through great growth Katy has always been peaceful and quiet where everyone is like family," says Gertrude. "I found it to be a wonderful and welcoming place to start a family and raise that family."
Back then a drive through Katy would take you only by rice fields. She remembers the old Katy Hospital where her children and grandchildren were born. She's watched home development after home development come to town and replace the multiple ranch and farm lands that use to make up Katy. More and more families have moved, adding to the family community feel that she loves the most.
A great great grandma
Gertrude and John loved children and knew they wanted a big family. The couple raised six children: Claudia, Ida, Benny, Johnnie, John and Tony. Four are still living today. Gertrude also has 14 grandchildren, 29 great grandchildren and 18 great great grandchildren, the youngest one is seven. Most of the Harris family remains in Katy or close enough to come together for family parties and celebrations.
From picking cotton to caring for children
Gertrude was not one to be idle. She was raised a hard worker having picked cotton as a young girl. While maintaining her household was a priority, she often kept busy cooking and cleaning for others to make money. She also looked after children and stayed very active in church, a staple that would follow her for all her years.
At the Antioch Church of Katy she worked with the children, a passion of hers and presided as the matron over them. She also went on to serve as President of the Pastor's Committee and helped pay off the debt for the church. Even now at 100 years of age she is actively involved in her church and doesn't miss a Sunday of worship.
Building a life together in Katy
Robert Harris, Gertrude's father-in-law would take cattle from Katy down to Post Oak well before there was ever a Galleria. While he would often work on the ranch, her husband John wanted more than a rancher's life and made a living as an entrepreneur. Really there was no job too small to take on to serve his community and provide for his family. "John could do a little bit of everything," said Gertrude. "He was always thinking and doing." His jobs ranged from rancher, farmer, businessman, restaurateur, and barber. John passed away from cancer in 1989 leaving Gertrude to run the family's restaurant business at the time.
Gertrude worked as a housekeeper, cook but would also help raise the children of those who she cleaned and cooked for. Delores Nelson Poorman grew up near Gertrude and remembers that Gertrude would sometimes watch her and her brother, George Nelson. "She was stern but fun and loving. You can't find a better person," said Delores. Gertrude later worked for George Nelson.
Vicki Nelson, another Nelson Gertrude watched and then went on to watch her children also had wonderful things to say about this Katy icon. " She's the most beautiful woman inside and out! On Fridays (in her words) she would go “dragging” with my oldest son to garage sales. She absolutely loved garage sales," said Vicki, who admits that Gertrude still calls her by her nickname, "Tot."
The hardest times in Katy
Gertrude watched Katy's response through many historical, and in some cases, trying times for our country. She observed the Katy community through World War II, the Great Depression, the Cold War and more. She recalls the severe rationing that the community experienced.
"Since I had six kids, people would come to me to buy food stamps for them. Sometimes it meant I got even less sugar but if it helped someone I would do it." Gertrude said she would also reach and help mothers who needed clothes and food. "Extra love like that is what always got Katy and it's people through."
Destroyed by fire
In the early 50's the Harris home burned down. "This was a hard time. We lost a lot but we had each other and really that's all that mattered," Gertrude said. The family went from their home to all five of them living in one-bedroom at a friends house. "We took any job we could to make money. I returned to picking cotton," she said. But they got through it thanks to each other, family and a community that they always believed in. A community that they would soon serve in a big way.
Katy's famous Busy Bee Cafe
After the war and the fire were behind them, the couple wanted to open a cafe. The couple opened the Busy Bee, and served happy customers in Old Katy for nearly four decades. The Busy Bee in Katy became so popular that the Harris' opened a second location in Brookshire. For years they worked both locations giving their customers both travelers, locals and regulars alike a hometown cafe experience with great food. John's failing health made them close the Brookshire Busy Bee Cafe in the mid-80's The Busy Bee of Katy remained a local Katy hang out, even after John's death in November of 1989. Some time after, Gertrude decided to retire and save her good cooking for her family.
Katy during the civil rights movement
While the country experienced riots and violence during the civil rights movement, according to Gertrude, Katy experienced a calm transition. "When Katy started to integrate blacks into Katy schools it was a peaceful transition, recalls Gertrude. "Churches, parents, and schools all worked together." Her youngest son, Tony was in one of the early classes of black students to attend Katy High School. He later graduated proud to be a Katy Tiger. Gertrude's older five children all went to a high school in Brookshire where black students in Katy had to go to.
When Katy High School started to integrate black students they still had a choice to attend a black high school in Cy-Fair ISD. "Blacks across the country were scared about the possible backlash to integration. I remember hearing about horrible stories but those things just didn't happen in Katy," said Harris.
Black and white harmony
Gertrude believes that Katy's history of raising black and white children among each other was responsible for the city's peaceful transition in such a historical time. "I worked at the church looking after children and there I raised black and white children alike. We were all peaceful, good Christian folks," she said.
Advice for a long happy life
Gertrude's advice for living a long and good life is prayer and eating properly. "I also like to take a nap, even when I was younger, if it was short one that was fine." She also advises not to smoke.
Another of Gertrude's secrets is being adaptable to change. "I've always been comfortable with change and open to it," says Gertrude. She admits her favorite change over the years was the invention of television. "I remember getting one when they first came out. It was black and white and just a few channels. And then it came in color and more and more channels!"
Time makes change inevitable. No one and no city can escape it. "I hope Katy stays true to what's important and that's family. It's always been a family community and its people is what sees it through hard times," says Gertrude. "I like growth. I want it to grow and stay clean but stay a family community."
A celebration like no other
Gertrude's loved ones, including five generations of family and friends, recently came together at Woodlands Park Community Center in Katy to mark the extra-special milestone 100th Birthday. At the party, Gertrude was touched to receive a birthday blessing from her pastor and says she had a great time visiting with party guests. "I led the dancing," exclaims Gertrude.
Katy Magazine would like to wish her a very happy 100th Birthday to Mrs. Gertrude Harris. Thank you for all you have done to contribute to the history and community of Katy. (Pictured: Katrina Katsarelis and Natalie Clark with Gertrude Harris, November, 2018.)
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Harris Family history is currently documented and on display at the Katy Heritage Museum.
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