Dr. Oleta Elizabeth (McWhorter) Harden, 86, of Greenwood, Ind., formerly of Dayton, Ohio, daughter of the late Stanley Virgil and Myrtie Alice McWhorter, passed away on Dec. 11, 2020. Dr. Harden, born and reared in Kentucky, was the youngest of five children, whose education and career were both distinctive.
At Jamestown High School she participated in numerous extracurricular activities and graduated Valedictorian of her class with a 4.0 GPA. In the next two years, Harden won three Kentucky statewide essay contests: the State Soil Conservation essay, the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation contest, and the State Social Worker contest, sponsored by the American Association of Social Workers. Notably, her essay on soil conservation was adjudged the best among 3,979 entries. All winnings were credited to her account at Western Kentucky from which she would graduate in four years.
As a freshman at Western, she won the oratorical contest sponsored by the local chapter of the AAUW women, the only oratorical contest open exclusively to women. Other finalists in the contest were two seniors, a junior, and a sophomore. Perhaps Dr. Harden's stunning undergraduate career can most succinctly be summed up by Mr. Don Bell, then editor of The College Heights Herald, the university's major campus newspaper: "Last Monday and Tuesday night a Western coed ended her career at Western by displaying heretofore unknown talent as an actress. "When the final curtain of the ‘Western Players’ production of Medea fell, Elizabeth McWhorter stepped out of the Western limelight as graciously as she entered it almost four years ago.
"Elizabeth's career at Western has indeed been a fabulous one. Since her first year on the campus, she has taken every speech honor available to a woman at Western. She has become Western's representative in the state, participating in state tournaments and speaking events, and has put the Hill on the "map" in speech circles by being named grand national winner in the Women's Division of Original Oration' in competition with representatives of 13 colleges and universities in the Grand National debate tournament at Fredericksburg, Va. Previously she had been rated best of 44 speakers in the first oratorical tournament held at Western, and in the state oratorical competition, was rated one of the four best in Kentucky.'"
In July 2003, the first meeting of the William E. Bivin Forensics Alumni Association was held at Western for discussion of a strong future alumni organization that would include past members. Dr. Harden was initially elected President, then later chosen as CEO. In addition; 'she was nominated for membership in the Forensics Hall of Fame.
Shortly after graduating from Western, Dr. Harden accepted a graduate assistantship from the University of Arkansas to begin work on the M.A. in English. She finished the M.A. in a year and afterwards interspersed her graduate study toward the Ph.D. with short teaching positions: for example, Southwest Missouri State, Northeastern State (OK), Wichita State (KS), and finally, Wright State University, where she spent the majority of her professional career.
Harden was a pioneer, in the best sense of the word. She was the only woman to receive a Ph.D. in her graduating class at Arkansas, and she was the first female full professor in the English Department and in the College of Liberal Arts at Wright State. She has been applauded for both her teaching and administrative work at Wright State. Students found her courses challenging, interesting, and fun; as one of her colleagues remarked, "Dr. Harden has distinguished herself as one of the department's most effective and popular teachers."
On June 10, 1993, she was awarded the Alumni Teaching Excellence Award, the most prestigious and distinctive of all teaching awards at that time. As an administrator, Harden served at the departmental level (Assistant Chair and Director of Freshman English), at the college level (Associate Dean in charge of directing curriculum and scheduling) and as Executive Director of General University Services (overseeing all non-academic services). Intermittently, she chaired the university's three major councils: The Academic, Graduate, and Athletic. Her favorite administrative post, however, was serving as President of the University Faculty. Because it was a faculty-elected position and carried with it the respect of the faculty and support of the President, it was a remarkable challenge. Under Harden's leadership, the faculty passed several major issues, including WSU's move from Division II to Division I in Intercollegiate Athletics.
Dr. Harden was also a published scholar, the author of two highly applauded critical studies of Maria Edgeworth, an Anglo-Irish contemporary of Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott. One critic praised the first book (Maria Edgeworth's Art of Prose Fiction) as the "best book-length study of Edgeworth's fictional techniques and literary theories," while another described the second book (Maria Edgeworth) as a "fresh synthesis of biographical, historical, and literary scholarship." For the second book, Harden studied unpublished Edgeworth family manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. She has also delivered research papers at scholarly meetings both here and abroad. She is currently listed in twenty-one biographical directories, including Who's Who in America, Foremost Women of the Twentieth Century, and The World Who's Who of Women in Education.
Dr. Harden met her husband Dennis in Wichita, Kan., where he was a real estate broker and investor and she was teaching at Wichita University. They shared many interests, especially travel, as evidenced by their visits to forty-four countries and to most of the United States.
Dr. Harden was preceded in death by her parents; by her husband; by three brothers, Jasper, Kenneth, and Bruce; and by Kenneth's wife Rachel; her sister Marjorie Murray: and her nephew Carl Murray, Jr. both of Franklin, IN.
She is survived by her great-nephew Michael Murray and his wife Shannon, of Whiteland, Ind., and Christie (Billy) Murphy of Franklin, Ind.
A family graveside service will be held Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, at 11:30 a.m., at Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum, 118 Woodland Avenue in Dayton, Ohio. In lieu of flowers, please donate to the Alzheimer’s Association, 31 West Whipp Road, Dayton, OH, 45459 or http://act.alz.org/goto/Harden.
Arrangements are being handled by Swartz Family Community Mortuary and Memorial Center, 300 South Morton Street, Franklin, Indiana and Routsong and Kettering Funeral Home in Kettering, Ohio.