TAMPA — When Mary Lou Harkness began work at the University of South Florida in 1958, the state’s newest university had not yet held its first class.
The fourth person hired at USF, Harkness was a catalog librarian. She was hired before the school held its first classes in 1960, when the campus had nothing on it but palmettos and oaks, when the USF faculty worked in a house in Hyde Park.
She quickly worked her way up. In 1967, she was named director of USF’s library, becoming the state university system’s first woman library director, according to a USF oral history recording with Harkness. She kept that position until 1987, when she retired as director but continued as a USF librarian. She officially retired in 1991.
Harkness died Tuesday at University Village Nursing Center in Tampa. She was 88.
She was born and raised in South Dakota, where her parents owned and operated a general store on an Indian reservation in South Dakota, said her stepdaughter, Kristine Harkness Sommerville.
Her parents emphasized the value of education, and Harkness earned a bachelor’s degree from Nebraska Wesleyan University, took graduate courses in library science at the University of Michigan and completed her studies at Columbia University, where she earned a master’s in library science, said her longtime friend, Marjorie Broward.
Before coming to USF, she had worked as a librarian at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
In 1965, she married Donald Harkness, a USF professor of American studies. His daughters, Sommerville and Judy Groleau, said their stepmother was a strong influence.
“She was, for all of us, a role model to have your priorities straight,” said Sommerville of Tampa.
“She let you know that women can do whatever they want to do,” said Groleau of San Antonio.
Harkness was a passionate about USF. She and Donald Harkness regularly went to events such as basketball games and music programs at the university.
“She was very much defined by her life at the university,” Sommerville said.
She also had a passion for several causes, including education, women’s rights and politics and became involved in several local campaigns, Sommerville said.
Former Mayor Pam Iorio remembers getting her support when she first ran for a Hillsborough County commission seat in the 1980s.
Harkness was a grassroots supporter who offered advice and did what was needed from knocking on doors to putting together direct mail pieces, Iorio said.
“She really wanted to see women succeed in public life,” Iorio said.
A celebration of life will be held at 1 p.m. May 31 at University Village Auditorium, 12401 North 22nd St., Tampa. A reception will follow.