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Generations of Generosity
By Mike Saucier
Sharon and Ollie Harper’s lives are a love story spanning the course of almost five
decades. But this love story goes beyond the merely romantic. It’s one of a love of family, philanthropy and community with a young and growing Arizona as the idyllic setting.
The story begins with their childhood admiration for their parents. It continues via 46 years of hard work and charitable activity in the Valley of the Sun. Through it all is woven the upbringing of their four children and a niece they raised. It’s a story that will continue with their four young grandchildren (with a fifth on the way).
The years of service and charity work are evident in some recent honors they’re received — a Lifetime Achievement Award from Phoenix Theater, and their selection as co-chairs of the Arizona State University President’s Club — to go along with a lifetime of recognition for their personal and professional contributions to the community.
And, on October 31, Sharon was the recipient of Valley Leadership’s prestigious Woman of the Year designation, with her Greater Phoenix Leadership colleague Neil Giuliano named Man of the Year.
The Harpers have been at the forefront of philanthropic and community involvement with just about every significant organization in Arizona. At the center of their relationship resides a shared philosophy of giving in their upbringings that led to the good fortune for them to run into each other at a Midwestern college.
Sharon Harper called her childhood in a small southern Minnesota town “idyllic.” Those years were framed by a strong relationship with her parents and siblings.
“It was very foundational for everything I am today,” she said. “My parents were amazing, extremely entrepreneurial, persistent, hard working and had high ideals, and they instilled that in all the children. I feel like everything goes back to that for me. They had a big interest in community involvement and political involvement. My father was on City Council, and ran for some other offices as well. We were all engaged in helping out as children. I really developed an admiration for people who step out into the public sector.”
While Sharon’s start was in a small town, Ollie got his near the big city, growing up in Yonkers, New York and attending high school and undergraduate college in New York City.
“My mom and dad were very active in the community,” Ollie said. “My mom was like a community organizer, before there was such a thing — she would get going on issues of consequence for people who live there. My dad was a lawyer for a group that was trying to bust up a corrupt union — he had that spirit about him.
“He ran a congressional candidate’s campaign in the 1950s, which gave me a view of what politics and public service were like,” Ollie said. “We were all very community spirited, giving people.”
Ollie’s father passed away when he was just 12, but he persevered, and made his way to Creighton University in Omaha to attend medical school. It was there where he met a young journalism major named Sharon, and also where they both
encountered some of the philosophies and beliefs that would shape their lives.
“The concept they teach of being ‘Men for Others’ has been a big part of our lives, and consequently it has been for our children as
well,” Sharon said.
After graduating, they moved to the Valley in 1971 to begin their adventure together — with one rather significant side trip right off the bat.
In 1973, the Harpers traveled to Kenya for a year, where Ollie practiced medicine in some extraordinary conditions and Sharon pitched in by helping vaccinate the local population.
“It was part of my grand plan,” Ollie said. “I wanted to do that after I became a doctor, and see what it was like practicing in a third — almost fourth — world country. It was very fulfilling and I enjoyed it very much. Sharon immunized practically half the tribal population of Africa, and would do a lot of complicated stuff from a medical standpoint, because over there you’re it — there’s no
referral hospital to send people to.”
When they came back to Arizona to start their family and professional careers in earnest, Ollie continued to do volunteer medical work while simultaneously building a successful medical practice. He’s volunteered at St. Vincent de Paul’s Clinic for the Working Poor for more than three decades, spending Thursday evenings making sure that working people suffering from poverty have access to quality doctors. He also volunteers for the Mission of Mercy.
In the meantime, the entrepreneurial influence of Sharon’s mother took root, as she saw opportunity in the real estate industry.
“The shift from my journalism background really occurred when Ollie was busy with his medical practice,” she said.
“The entrepreneurial spirit made me see opportunities in the real estate industry. With influence and guidance of Ollie, I initially gravitated toward the development of medical office buildings. That’s how we started Plaza Companies in 1982, and now we are much broader in the sectors we serve.”
For Sharon and Ollie, two things grew particularly quickly over the course of time. The first was Plaza Companies, which has evolved into one of the most respected real estate firms in the region, boasting signature projects such as SkySong, The ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center, Vi and Silverstone, an impressive portfolio of medical offices, and most recently a partnership with Holualoa Companies to redevelop Park Central Mall.
And the second was their family. They have four children — Christy, Lise, Joe and Michael — and have raised their niece Shannon since she was a child. Their children have gone on to their own pursuits over time, both in the Valley and around the world. Joe and Michael in particular traveled extensively, both living in South America for a period of time. The family continues to be close, and Sharon and Ollie frequently travel to see each of them.
But there was another aspect of their lives that has perhaps best defined their legacy in the community — their extensive community involvement, for organizations too numerous to list. Ollie’s involvement with healthcare-related entities has included not only serving impoverished populations, but helping to shape the Phoenix-based medical programs of his alma mater Creighton University as well as his work with the University of Arizona.
And Sharon’s involvement has placed her at the top echelon of the business community. She has served as chair of both Greater Phoenix Leadership and the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, and has been extremely influential with some of the Valley’s most established philanthropic organizations.
“One of most prestigious and rewarding and grateful opportunities for me was when I was invited to be a Trustee for the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust,” Sharon said. “To have a leader like Virginia and her focus in community, and now be one of eight trustees that are carrying on that tradition, that has been very meaningful.
“And being involved with higher education has been tremendous for us, both for Creighton University and for ASU,” she said. “We’re very proud to be co-chairmen of ASU’s President’s Club, and of course Plaza Companies’ partners with the university in the development of SkySong. And, it has been rewarding being a non-Jesuit chairman of the Board of Trustees for Brophy College Preparatory.”
“Being at the intersection of philanthropy, government, business, education – that’s really our story,” Sharon said.
Sharon said that their philanthropic work has been driven by a vision for Arizona and how it will be a home for future generations.
“I want it to be a community that is well known for great education, from pre- Kindergarten to higher education,” she said. “A place that our children grow up with the talent and skills for the new economy, and they stay here because we’ve laid a platform for companies to want to be here. I want us to have a pipeline of talent, to care about arts and culture, to be involved in human services that bring other people in the community up, to emphasize education, and to ensure we have great leadership and a great lifestyle.”
All of the hard work over 46 years in the Valley and 48 years of marriage has rewarded Sharon and Ollie Harper in ways both personal and professional.
“There’s something within me that says at end of day, I hope I did something right today,” Ollie said. “Just that conscience of being part of who I am, and doing something that’s good for others and good of the community. I always ask myself, ‘Am I doing what’s right? Could I be doing more?’ It’s just part of who I am.”