The small Christian context of Covenant College fosters deep relationships throughout campus. This opportunity for heartfelt community is one of Covenant’s unique qualities, including the exceptional faculty and staff. However, because of this small, tightly woven community, deaths heavily impact the campus. On Saturday, November 11, Covenant College lost beloved community member and friend, Bob Harbert, ‘78. Harbert is survived by children Allison Smith and Ashley Lesondak; siblings Michael Harbert and Sherri Kramer; grandchildren, Levi Smith, Caleb Smith, Myra Lesondak, and Paige Lesondak, as well as several nieces and nephews.
His memorial service was held November 13 at Saint Elmo Presbyterian Church.
Harbert graduated from Covenant in 1978 with a degree in chemistry. Immediately afterwards, he began his work at Covenant College, first overseeing the waste treatment facility. In his years at Covenant, Harbert also received the Rudy and Collyn Schmidt Service Award in 2015.
Harbert had been working at Covenant for thirty-five years at the time of his death. In those thirty-five years he inhabited the role of teacher, vice president of finance and administration, and most recently, controller in the accounting office. Harbert was also a member and elder of Saint Elmo Presbyterian Church.
Beyond merely his career, Harbert was regarded as an excellent teacher, possessing a superior intellect.
Jeff Hall, vice president of academic affairs, said the following in his reflections on his dear friend: “He understood concepts so well that he could present complex ideas, thoughts, and actions in ways that were simple enough for the rest of us to understand.”
Harbert displayed his selflessness before the Covenant community in tangible ways. For example, on Friday, April 22, 2016, Harbert took the stage to deliver a chapel talk. The talk was his testimony. Harbert commanded the podium amidst the cheers and shouts of Covenant students. He waved his two hands, a humble rejection of the wave of praise.
Harbert then looked to his left, smiling, and said, “The first thing I want to do is introduce my wife… she deserves every bit as much.” The students erupted once more in praise of Joni Harbert. However, the cheering of the students was lead by the smiling, joyful cheering of Bob Harbert himself.
This example from Harbert’s life also verifies the love he had for his wife Joni. In Hall’s words, Joni was the “center of his earthly affections.” One can witness this affection through Harbert’s testimony, as he recounts the importance of having his companion at his side even amidst great suffering.
Harbert, though he struggled with his illness, never let it control his life. This could be seen with Harbert’s humor. For example, after being introduced by vice president Jeff Hall in chapel, Harbert jokingly said: “Thank you, Jeff, you left out my great humility. I’m really proud of that and you completely left it out of there.”
Harbert’s spirituality, furthermore, had a profound affect on the Covenant community. Jeff Hall, in his reflections, gave a list of lessons taught him by Harbert (Hall said that Harbert loved lists and loved closure).
Among the notes on this list, Hall cited Harbert taught him “God can be trusted, and our hope is not vain.” Hall also included that Harbert taught “Jesus is the best and first love of our lives, because he loves us more than we can imagine.”
Harbert’s humility and selfless attitude was also an opportunity for him to point to God. Harbert said, “I’m not worthy of all the intention, but in God’s mercy it’s not about my worth. It’s about love among God’s people.”
Outside of Covenant, Harbert never missed an opportunity to point others to Christ. In addition to serving as an elder in his church, Harbert also served as a board member for Widow’s Harvest, a nonprofit of Chattanooga.
In his testimony, Harbert told of an encounter with the radiologist. After hearing the prognosis and statistics for life expectancy, Harbert responded by preaching of the sovereignty of God — sovereignty which applied even to something like cancer.
Knowing these things, it is easy to see why Harbert was awarded Alumni of the Year on November 20 of this year. On Covenant’s website, a statement concerning Harbert’s award says, “Bob devoted himself to the mission of Covenant by serving in many different capacities over thirty-five years, from teaching classes to working in the physical plant to serving as the vice president of finance and administration and, most recently, working in the accounting office.”
At the announcement of this award, President Halvorson said, “Bob demonstrated a contagious love and joy for Jesus and for family.”
Even amidst Covenant College’s grieving at the loss of Harbert, the community can look to his own words to find comfort. In his chapel testimony, Harbert spoke much on suffering. After reading James 1:1-4, Harbert expounded on the odd relationship of suffering and joy presented the believer in Scripture. In reference to a sermon he had heard, he said, “What James is saying is that the suffering produces something that is a joyful thing.”