Jeff Harper shared a key personality trait with his great-grandfather.
Harper’s great-grandfather was Frank C. Ball, one of the five Ball brothers whose legacy is being celebrated during Ball State University’s Centennial.
Jeff, too, was a successful businessman, having owned an industrial ceramic inspection and testing company. While Jeff had a Ph.D. in pharmacology, he also taught himself ceramic engineering by reading books, according to his widow, Mary Harper.
“Jeff was incredibly bright,” she said. “I called him the human calculator.”
Beyond his business, Jeff expressed his go-getting drive by tracking down the very jars manufactured by the company his great-grandfather led. His goal was to collect one example of every different jar manufactured by Ball. A premature death prevented Jeff from finishing his task. He lost his battle with kidney cancer in 2012 at the age of 60.
But, in his relatively short life, he amassed one of the largest collections of Ball jars in existence, if not the largest.
Mary estimates it at around 3,000 jars, and no two are alike. The collection is divided between the couple’s primary home in Houston, where most are on display, and a lake home.
Karen Vincent, director of collections for Minnetrista Cultural Center in Muncie and a Ball jar expert, saw the collection during a 2016 trip to Houston.
“It’s got to be one of the biggest collections,” Vincent said. “Absolutely. Without a doubt.”
Jeff was a legend in the tight-knit community of glass collectors.
Writer Bruce Schank of the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors eulogized Jeff in a November-December 2012 issue of the organization’s magazine, Bottles and Extras.
“Jeff, in my estimation, came closer than anyone in the goal of having the most complete Ball jar collection,” Schank wrote. “He was the King and no one else can claim that but him.”
Jeff and Mary were both born in Muncie. Mary’s father, Mario Pieroni, attended Ball State for three years before transferring to Notre Dame. A lawyer and Delaware County superior court judge who was born blind, Pieroni was also known for his efforts to improve the lives of people with disabilities.
The couple met at the University’s Burris Laboratory School and became high school sweethearts. They married in 1973 after Jeff graduated with honors from Brown University with a bachelor’s in molecular biology. Jeff’s post-graduate education and career took them throughout the Southeast and eventually to Houston.
The jar collection began with Mary. As a Muncie native, she too had an interest in Ball memorabilia. She had collected a few jars, picking them up here and there at antique malls.
“Then Jeff got interested and it took off,” Mary said.
He didn’t just collect Ball jars, either. He collected anything with the Ball name on it — recipe books, letter openers, ashtrays, advertisements — even instructional films on how to on how to can vegetables.
He also managed to find the wooden crates that jars were shipped in.
“Those are incredibly rare,” Mary said. “People used them for firewood.”
Home doubles as museum
By 2010, the collection had outgrown the available space in the Harper’s primary home. So, they built an addition for more square footage and added built-in shelving throughout the house. The result is a home that doubles as a museum.
But the collection doesn’t seem to impose on the living space, according to those who have seen it. If anything, it enhances it with a rainbow of pastel-colored glass. While most jars were clear, many were a translucent blue, green, pink, or purple.
“Some are just downright beautiful,” Mary said.
Ball State University President Geoffrey S. Mearns saw the collection firsthand in 2018. He was in Houston for another event. When he learned of the Harper collection, he decided to make a side trip to the family’s home.
“It was fun having him here,” Mary said.
One of the jars that drove Jeff’s collecting obsession was the KKK jar. Stamped on the bottom was the figure of a Klansman surrounded by an American flag and cross. The jar dates to the 1920s when some Klansmen who worked in Ball factories secretly manufactured an unknown number of the jars unsanctioned by the company.
“After hours, someone made a mold,” Mary said.
The jar is a Holy Grail among glass collectors. The appeal is in its rarity and its historical significance, not in the hateful attitude its motif represents.
Collectors believe three or four may still exist, but Minnetrista has one of only two known surviving examples, and uses the jar as a teaching device. In partnership with R.A.C.E Muncie, Minnetrista Theatre Preserves has presented performances of “In My Hands, In My Heart,” which tells the story of two young Ball factory workers in 1928 who discover a jar with the Klan crest. The response to their discovery “explores historical perspectives and challenges of the time, as well as questions of personal integrity,” according to Minnestristra website.
The history behind the jars is one of the things that fascinated Jeff, according to Mary, who believes her late husband was close to having a complete set of Ball jars before he died.
“There were just a few very rare jars left,” she said.
Some of those jars may not even exist anymore, Mary added. Whether any examples have survived remains an ongoing debate among glass collectors.
Mary has donated about 250 pieces of Ball memorabilia to Minnetrista, knowing Jeff would like the idea of sharing his collection with a wider audience.
The Harper collection is still growing.
“I go to Target and if they’re on sale, I buy them,” Mary said. “I do it to honor Jeff.”
Watch the student-produced video “A Legacy Etched in Glass: The Ball Brothers in Muncie.” An immersive learning project under the direction of Chris Flook, a telecommunications instructor, the film examines the lives of the five brothers, the family legacy in Muncie and the core values that propelled them to success: hard work, philanthropy, entrepreneurship, and beneficence.