Obituary : Cecile B. Harrison
Cecile Becker Harrison, a long-time summer resident of Chilmark, died suddenly on March 22, 2008 from the impact of a fall in her winter home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She was two-weeks shy of her 92nd birthday.
Ceil and her husband Guy Fraser Harrison, then conductor and music director of the Rochester, NY, Civic Orchestra, the Rochester Philharmonic, and faculty member of the Eastman School of Music, were first introduced to the Vineyard in the summer of 1947 when they cruised into Menemsha Harbor aboard a replica of Joshua Slocum's "The Spray." Welcomed to Menemsha by summer residents and dear friends pianist and scientist Leopold Mannes and his wife, the dancer Evelyn Sabin Mannes, the Harrisons returned in 1948 as guests of the Manneses, and for the next decade rented houses in Menemsha and Chilmark. They maintained their Vineyard habit even after moving from Rochester to Oklahoma City in 1951 when Guy became music director and conductor of the Oklahoma City Symphony Orchestra. Each June and September they drove cross country (in the days before Interstate highways) to enjoy their treasured Vineyard summers, their Oklahoma license plate a Vineyard curiosity. Acquiring property on Menemsha Pond in 1958, they summered there until Guy's death, in San Miguel in 1986 at age 91. Ceil then returned to the Island for 21 summers on her own, often joined by their daughter Myra and her husband William B. Watson.
Ceil and Guy began journeying from Oklahoma to spend their Christmas holidays in the Spanish colonial hill town of San Miguel de Allende during the 1960s. In 1973, Ceil and Guy first extended their stay to three months in the winter, and then later, when Guy fully retired, to six months, establishing a pattern of splitting the year between San Miguel and their home in Chilmark.
Ceil was born April 5, 1916 in Evansville, Indiana. Christened Mary Cecilia Becker, she was the daughter of Mary Riordan and John Joseph Becker, an American college Professor of Music. John J. Becker was also a composer of modernist, often dissonant symphonic music, and later became known as a member of "The American 5," a group of composers that also included Charles Ives and Henry Cowell, who were creating music of a distinctly American style. After her mother's death from influenza in 1918, Ceil was raised until she was 12 by her paternal grandparents in Henderson, Kentucky. Then she rejoined her father and his new family in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she attended the Convent of the Visitation School (during this period she changed her name to "Cecile") and later the University of Minnesota. In 1939, she married Guy, moving to Rochester, NY and later to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1951.
Ceil had a varied career, both professional and volunteer. In college, she sang with a jazz band and toured in the summers with the Oxford Players, a Shakespeare company of collegians. After college, she was an apprentice and subsequent touring member of ANTA (American National Theatre Academy), having previously studied at the Stella Adler School. In Rochester, for four years she had her own radio show, Cecil's Scrapbook, and had started a television career when Guy's work took them to Oklahoma City. There she was widely active as a volunteer, for the Visiting Nurses Association among others, and she spearheaded the establishment of the first branch of Planned Parenthood in that city and its first Board of Directors. For 12 years, she was the director of marketing and public relations for Hightower's Inc., a high-end specialty store of women's clothing, jewelry, and fine housewares in Oklahoma City.
After retirement to Mexico in 1973, Ceil reclaimed her theatrical career and became well known in San Miguel for her many successful roles. She appeared in numerous productions of the Players' Workshop and of P.E.N. International, among them as Dorothy Parker in "The World of Dorothy Parker," as Melissa Gardner in "Love Letters," as Amanda in "The World of Tennessee Williams," and in the title role of "The Mad Woman of Chaillot." Also in San Miguel, she reprised her youthful role as a singer, appearing in several musical reviews including "Brecht on Brecht" and "Oh! Coward." She sustained her late-life performing career well into her 80s.
Ceil cherished her 60 summers on the Vineyard, appreciating the Island's enduring beauties, and relishing the renewal she found in caring for her house and garden, in reading, and especially in the time she spent with her family and friends. Her lively commentary, energy and enthusiasms, and blazing appetite for life are missed by all who knew her.
Pre-deceased also by stepson Basil Fraser Harrison, she is survived by her daughter Myra Harrison Watson and son-in-law William B. Watson, and by three half-brothers John, Eugene and Bruce Becker. Also surviving are grandchildren Alexander Fraser Harrison and Scott Fraser Harrison, and four great grandchildren. Contributions in Ceil's memory can be made to the Gift Fund of the Chilmark Free Public Library, P.O. Box 180, Chilmark, MA 02535.