When Denise Harlos was a young girl, her family moved to Nigeria where her father helped train teachers.
Political unrest sent the family packing after a couple of years, but the experience had a profound effect on her personal and professional life, instilling a deep appreciation for cultural differences and the power of reading.
“She tried to learn from life and take those lessons and apply them, and use them as she encountered different opportunities and experiences,” said her daughter, Rachael Harlos. “In that sense, she was always growing and was always curious.”
Harlos, an educator for decades and the recipient of the first MN English Learner Advocate Award, died at age 53 at her home in Eden Prairie on April 26.
Harlos was born in Ohio, where she spent most of her childhood. After high school, she move to Arizona and earned her B.A. and M.Ed. in language, reading and culture from the University of Arizona. In 1998, her family moved from Tuscon to Eden Prairie. She received a masters in education sciences from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and worked for the Shakopee School District, where she became a program manager in charge of Title One programs for low-income students.
Sue Arko, a district colleague, said that her dedication to improving the lives of students went beyond school policy. If a student needed winter boots, Arko said, she’d find them.
“She was a passionate advocate for students, teachers, and parents,” said Arko. “She was a huge advocate of everyone being literate — she was very keen on what it takes to get a child to learn how to read.”
Though her greatest passion was her family, Harlos loved gardening, horses and sailing. She kept a small wooden catamaran called Chicken of the Sea that her father built in his garage, and was always ready for an excursion on a nearby lake.
Harlos owned a horse in Tucson, but gave it up before moving to Minnesota. Rachael Harlos said that after her mom’s brain tumor was diagnosed and the night before an MRI, she had a dream that she was riding, and that the next day during her MRI she visualized that experience to help her soothe her fears.
Above all, books were a constant for Harlos, and she was a steadfast advocate for reading — something she did even into the last months of her life, even though the brain tumor made it difficult.
“She believed that to develop a child’s ability to become good readers, you have to get books in their hands,” Rachael said.
To that end, Arko asked visitors to the memorial service, which was held Monday, to donate a new or used children’s book to be bagged up and sent home with students at the end of the school year.
Harlos is survived by her husband of 22 years, Paul; children, Lowell Amparan, Rachael Harlos, Ann Harlos and Beth Harlos; mother, Jean Lewis; and siblings, David Lewis, Dee Faigin and Dawn Lewis. She was preceded in death by her father, Wilbur, and brother, Darrin.