Remembering Jan Harelson: 1937-2015

Jan and Hugh Harelson


The Hugh and Jan Harelson Award for Teaching Excellence is given annually by the school to an instructor who exemplifies the highest quality of teaching, based on nominations from students.

The winner is chosen by a committee composed of the school director and at least two people from outside the school (the director can provide additional information for the committee, including teacher course evaluation scores).

The winner is given $1,000 and a trophy, generously provided by the Harelson family, handed out at the Just Desserts gathering in May. The winner is kept secret until the award is given out at Just Desserts.

• Award winners since 2000

By David McGlothlin

Dorothy Jan Harelson lived by example and by principle.

Friends, family and peers remember her as a passionate educator and champion of journalism who understood the importance of action, community involvement, civics and volunteerism. Jan, 78,  died in Phoenix on Aug. 28, 2015, while undergoing heart surgery.

“Jan did so many amazing things, and people remember her for not only all she accomplished but how she accomplished it,” said Jacqueline E. Sharkey, friend, former head of the School of Journalism and current professor emerita. 

Jan’s résumé is lengthy: A teacher, business owner, director of a domestic violence shelter, volunteer on Foster Care Review Board, Arizona Highway member, chairperson on the Maricopa Task Force Against Domestic Violence, president of the Sojourner Center, and not to mention wife to husband Hugh Harelson and mother of two, Matt and Scott.

Countless individuals, organizations, and institutions were impacted by Jan’s selfless work and contributions. “She never sat still and was always jumping in to take on the next challenge,” said son Matt, adding he was in absolute awe of all she accomplished. 

Jan’s contributions to the school include raising funds, establishing endowments and teaching awards, not to mention a vital role in two-reaccreditation processes and the organization’s change in status from department to school in 2008.

“Journalism was a passion, but her overall interest was education,” said son Scott. “She loved learning and loved to teach.” 

Her journey as an educator began with an education degree from the UA, where she met Hugh Harelson, a Journalism alum who was working for the Arizona Republic as a Southern Arizona correspondent. 

Jan took her degree to the classroom, teaching kindergarten and second grade at schools throughout Phoenix and Tucson. Scott said his mother always felt her ultimate accomplishment was teaching children how to read. Books and newspapers filled their house. 

“We grew up with two parents who obsessively read the newspaper on a daily basis” and stressed current events, said Scott, who is manager of media relations at the Salt River Project

So in 1994, when the UA proposed to close the journalism department due to budget cuts, Jan and Hugh helped professors, journalists and alumni rally support for the program. A two-year battle ensued, and the school remained open. 

“I think the president of the university at the time basically learned it’s hard to fight someone who buys their ink by the barrel,” said David Cuillier, School of Journalism director since 2011.

Jan’s drive and get-it-done mentality resulted in a fundraising campaign for the school’s first cutting-edge computer lab after Hugh’s death in 1998. The Hugh Harelson Reporting Lab, dedicated in May 2000, “was the nucleus for revolutionizing the journalism curriculum,” Sharkey said. “That lab enabled the journalism school to change the content of every skills class that it taught.”

Today the lab is refreshed with the latest software and technologies as a result of the Hugh Harelson Reporting Laboratory Endowment. Jan also established the Hugh and Jan Harelson Operations Endowment, which is currently about $200,000 and raises about $8,000 per year, Cuillier said. It funds operation expenses, including transporting students to Mexico for border reporting. 

Matt Harelson, who owns businesses in Carlsbad, California, said he and his wife, Julie, will match 1-to-1 donations, up to $25,000, toward the endowment this coming year to get the endowment to $250,000. If that wasn’t enough, Jan also instituted the Hugh and Jan Harelson Excellence in Teaching award, now worth $1,000.

The school re-dedicated the lab, calling it the Hugh and Jan Harelson Reporting Lab, in May 2016. Jan’s granddaughter, Sara, is UA journalism student.

“It wasn’t just Jan’s words that inspired people,” Sharkey said. “It was Jan’s work that inspired people.”


Support School of Journalism students – and double your giving power – through a 1-to-1 match for contributions to the Harelson Operations Endowment. To donate, go to