VIProfile: Loni Harris

Member of the Tennessee Historical Commission

Story by Lyda Kay Ferree, The Southern Lifestyles Lady. Photography by Woody Woodard.

Loni Harris has lived in Jackson, Tennessee 28 years. Her family is originally from Henderson County, Tennessee, but she regards Covington, Tennessee as home. Her father moved his young family there to continue his career as an engineer when she was 4 years old. Having spent her childhood in the community of Garland surrounded by cotton fields, Loni agrees with her friend, Roberta Price, in classifying cotton as a flower. “I will never forget the smell of freshly tilled cotton fields,” said Loni. The fashion designer Sheryl Putnam created a cotton corsage for her to wear on special occasions.

Loni’s love of gardening began in Covington where the azaleas grow to be very large due to the rich soil near the river. “My childhood friends and I didn’t walk far to find a patch of fresh strawberries, watermelons or other fresh snacks growing. They were all available to us for a nominal fee. A Master Gardener, Loni is interested in the conservation and story of historic horticulture and gardens. She has been a featured speaker on the English gardening style of Gertrude Jekyll.

Her interest in history began as a child as well. The Hermitage in Nashville was always a fascinating place for her. Each spring she attends as many of the historic Pilgrimages as time will allow. “Bolivar, Tennessee does an excellent job showcasing its strong heritage of architectural and cemetery preservation,” said Loni. “The town has a strong preservation society and is an example of the results gained with a mindful and persistent group.”

A member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Daughters of 1812 and Colonial Dames XVII Century, Loni has learned much about family history. “Finding my ancestors and their stories has been very rewarding on many levels,” she said. “I am new to this research and am fascinated with the people I continue to discover. A sea captain in my family actually sailed his family from Wales to North Carolina on his ship. There are so many interesting people involved in genealogy. I learn something each time I am with them. The Archives in Nashville is full of information, and I love spending the day there surrounded by all of the books.”

Loni is married to the Madison County Mayor Jimmy Harris. “Public service offers opportunities to meet people in a variety of situations,” Loni said. “When I look back on my life in years to come, this will truly be a special time in my history.” Their daughter, Alex, recently married in New Zealand and now resides in Figi. Ben Harris lives in Jackson with his wife, Monica, and their two children, Gavin and Riley. Marci Harris lives in San Francisco.

Loni is a longtime member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, where she has served on the Vestry and as a Eucharistic Minister. She also serves the Diocese of West Tennessee on Bishop and Council for the Right Reverend Don Johnson.

“In September 2015 I was appointed by the Honorable Governor Haslam to the Tennessee Historical Commission,” said Loni. “The people I have met and the places I have visited are a once-in-a-lifetime experience. When we get together for our meetings we are like a family who has not seen each other in a few months,” Loni said.

The mission of the Tennessee Historical Commission is to encourage the inclusive diverse study of Tennessee’s history for the benefit of future generations to protect, preserve, interpret, operate, maintain, and administer historic sites; to mark important locations, persons, and events in Tennessee history; to assist in worthy publication projects; to review, comment on and identify projects that will potentially impact state-owned and non-state-owned historic properties; to locate, identify, record and nominate to the National Register of Historic Places all properties which meet National Register criteria and to implement other programs of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 as amended; and acting in its capacity as the Tennessee Wars Commission, to preserve and conserve the legacies of the American Revolution and the War Between the States in Tennessee. “That is the long answer to a short question about the functions of the THC, but it needs to be stated in its entirety.”


VIP: When were you named to the Tennessee Historical Commission (THC) and what is the length of your term?

Loni Harris: I am currently beginning the 4th year of a 5-year term appointment. Since 2015 I have served on the Historic Sites Committee. Dan Brown, our Historic Preservation Specialist, monitors and updates the committee regularly via conference calls about budgets and progress of the State Historic Sites Program. I also participate in the annual Merit Awards given to various nominees.

I am one of 8 Commission members from West Tennessee. The THC is comprised of 8 members from each of the 3 grand divisions of the State of Tennessee.


VIP: Discuss the chief projects the Commission is working on at present and some future projects on the drawing board.

LH: We recently had a meeting regarding the removal of James K. Polk’s body from the state Capitol grounds to Polk Place in Columbia, TN. We are often in the news regarding historical sites.

The Tennessee Historical Commission is the State Historic Preservation Office for the U.S. State of Tennessee headquartered in Nashville. We are an independent state agency, administratively attached to the Department of Environment and Conservation. I appreciate a close relationship with my local elected officials Senator Ed Jackson and State Representative Jimmy Eldridge regarding their budget votes.


VIP: How does your work on the THC impact West Tennessee and do your duties require frequent travel?

LH: When I was first appointed to the THC, I met with E. Patrick McIntyre, Executive Director and State Historic Preservation Officer, at our headquarters, Clover Bottom Mansion in Nashville, to ask about the expectations of my appointment. My primary duties are to gain as much knowledge as possible and encourage preservation efforts in West Tennessee, to visit as many sites as possible and to be a good will ambassador to West Tennessee while representing the Governor of the State of Tennessee in a  professional and courteous manner. I have visited historic preservation sites all over the state.


VIP: What do you most enjoy about your Commission work?

LH: The phone call to my husband following my first tour sums up my adrenaline rush each time we visit an historic site. We saw a piece of Dave the slave pottery and touched it! We put on white cotton gloves and read pages from their Bibles and diaries! We went behind the velvet ropes! The curator was speaking to the group and mentioned that Cragfont has been in several movies. He then went on to say “and the bed upstairs on the left is the one Kris Kristofferson slept in.” In a flash I revisited that room! Patrick enjoyed hearing my account over the telephone and asked later if I were a Kristofferson fan! I enjoy every minute of the places and people I have had the pleasure to meet.


VIP: What are your hobbies?

LH: I love to read. My horse, a blue-eyed cream Connemara is a passion. (Connemara is on the coast of Ireland.) Jimmy and I have four dogs (Three are rescues; they find us!). Traveling is important to me. Paris, France is a favorite and the beaches of Normandy are a surreal experience. Florence, Italy is an amazing artistic experience. Rome, Sienna, Venice, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, England, Japan and New Zealand have all been wonderful experiences. Any travel with Dr. Larry Ray is a delight even if it’s just going to lunch! Genealogy is a favorite way to spend hours, and I enjoy gardening.