John Harkins, 82, formerly of Philadelphia, the Lower School principal for two decades at Germantown Friends School, died Tuesday, May 7, of congestive heart failure in Seattle, where he had moved in 2018 to be near family.
Dr. Harkins was a Quaker and longtime member of the Germantown Monthly Meeting. He believed in kindness, helping those who needed him, and the power of education to transform lives, he told his family.
Born in Philadelphia, he graduated from George School, a Quaker day and boarding school near Newtown, Bucks County. “He loved his high school experience,” daughter Kate said he told her.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from Haverford College, also a Quaker school; a master’s degree from Harvard University; and a doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Harkins began his career as a teacher in 1967 and 1968. He joined the faculty at Germantown Friends in 1969 as principal of the Lower School. He encouraged Lower School teachers to experiment with new methods, his daughter said, and was a personable but unconventional leader.
“He was always a relaxed presence, known by the students and trusted by the faculty, often popping into classrooms or reading to students,” the school said in an online remembrance.
“He did not hesitate as principal to come to Germantown Friends Lower School’s Halloween celebration as the Tooth Fairy, nor to open the window and blow his trumpet outside,” she said. “As a principal, he was kind, so students didn’t mind being sent to the principal’s office.”
When Fred Calder left his job in 1986 as principal of Germantown Friends, Dr. Harkins volunteered to become acting headmaster for a year while the school searched for a new head. When the post was filled, he reverted to his old job in the Lower School.
Although he left Germantown Friends in 1989 to head the Friends school in Mullica Hill, the lively spirit and educational innovation he brought to Germantown Friends endured, the school said.
Dr. Harkins served as headmaster at Mullica Hill from 1989 to 2000. He was the fifth and longest-serving head of the school.
He believed that the arts, care for the environment, and related themes that could be taught to different grades at the same time were important to a good curriculum.
“Perhaps his greatest assets were his visions of a quality education in which the ultimate test was the character of the learners, and his capacity to help people achieve together more than they had dreamed of accomplishing apart,” the school posted on its website May 17.
In 1999, he helped establish Orchard Friends School in Riverton. The school is designed for students with learning differences, its website says.
He enjoyed being a leader at Camp Dark Waters in Medford and Camp Onas in Ottsville, Pa.
“He built or sewed whatever he needed and was ready to repair anything from a door hinge to a bicycle,” his daughter said. “He made beer, poetry and friends.”
In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Meg, and two grandsons. A son, Andrew, died earlier.
A meeting for worship will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 8, at Germantown Friends Meeting, 47 W. Coulter St. Burial is private.