May 6, 2022 by HCDE-Texas
Harriet Hubacker has always lived life on her own terms.
At the experienced age of 90 years old, HCDE’s May Employee of the Month and the Texas Association for Literacy and Adult Education (TALAE) and Coalition on Basic Adult Education’s (COABE) teacher of the year looks back on her life and celebrates her independence through education.
Hubacker, who has been an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in HCDE’s Adult Education division for nearly 20 years, was a woman ahead of her time.
“As a child, I was always the outcast,” she said. “I was born in 1932, and I didn’t want anything to do with anything girly. I always played with the boys. All through high school, the other girls thought I was weird. I hated the restrictions.”
Hubacker’s mother was a college graduate, which was unusual for her time.
“I think maybe in a lot of ways she had toed the line, so it was kind of hard to accept that maybe I could do things differently. She would tell me, ‘no daughter of mine is going to do this, or do that,’—and I’ve done most of them,” she laughs.
Over the course of her life, being told she couldn’t do something would be the impetus Hubacker needed to prove others wrong.
“Even in high school, I said, ‘I think I want to be a lawyer.’ So, 20 years later, I became a lawyer,” said Hubacker.
A lifelong learner, she holds five degrees, including master’s degrees in speech and applied linguistics, a Juris Doctor degree, and bachelor’s degrees in physical education and English.
After high school, Hubacker attended Wheaton College in Illinois. Though she hoped to major in a foreign language, the college did not offer the courses.
Hubacker became a schoolteacher after obtaining her first two bachelor’s degrees.
“As an academic, I was attracted to teaching,” she said.
Shortly after her first teaching experience, she took a job as a civilian for one of the Air Force’s enlisted service clubs in Japan during the early 1950s. When she returned to the U.S., she worked as a reporter for the Pensacola News Journal before marrying and moving with her then-husband to Los Angeles. Eventually, Hubacker and her family relocated to Houston.
“I did some substitute teaching at HISD until they discovered I was pregnant. They said, ‘we can’t have a pregnant teacher in the school,’” Hubacker stated.
The theme of her life, and in effect, her work, was being told what she couldn’t do. It became the kindle to the fire which led her to help those facing barriers to education or employment.
Though she has taught in some capacity throughout her whole life, Hubacker says she prefers teaching ESL students.
“What I love is that they aren’t just there to get a grade,” she said. “They want to be there, even the ones having a hard time. The students are so involved and so grateful for everything. I find I learn as much from my students as much as they learn from me.”
While her husband settled into his new job in Houston, Hubacker attended law school.
“After I graduated from law school, I worked for the city attorney for 4 or 5 years,” she said. “As a woman, they wouldn’t let me into the litigation department. They would say, ‘we don’t have women in our litigation department.’”
To ameliorate the situation, they made her the city attorney’s assistant, which allowed her to gain experience in federal court when he had to defend the city.
“My claim to fame at the city is that I wrote the first non-smoking ordinance for restaurants, and I found the loophole so that we could write the no-pay toilets at the airport ordinance. I always thought, ‘that’s just not right,’” said Hubacker. “My husband was traveling a lot, so we were there often. We’d go into the bathrooms, and I’d send my oldest daughter under to unlock all the doors.”
In private practice, the grandmother of nine was instrumental in paving the way for the home appraisal appeal process.
“When they first created the property appraisal district, some bright lawyer they had working for them figured out a loophole to keep people from having their appraisals reviewed,” said Hubacker. “I had a client that wanted to appeal it, and it turned into a class-action suit. We probably had at least 50,000 people who got their appraisals reviewed. The appraisal district then had to create a system to process the appeals. It was a big deal at the time.”
After 25 years of working as an attorney, Hubacker left the profession and joined the Peace Corps, serving for over two years in Poland where she helped the country’s new government develop small businesses after the fall of communism. When she returned to Houston, she decided to get her master’s degree in applied linguistics.
“I didn’t want to go back into law practice,” she said. “I had gotten really involved with the problems in teaching languages. After I got my linguistics degree, the judge I was an attorney for retired, so I basically retired. But I didn’t want to do that. I would be bored to death if I was really retired. And that was when I went to work for May O’Brien.”
HCDE Adult Education Manager May O’Brien, Hubacker’s longtime friend and supervisor, recalls how they met.
“Back then, I was working for the Chinese Community Center’s literacy program. I was a new supervisor, and I was looking for good ESL teachers,” said O’Brien. “I placed an ad in the newspaper, and she responded. We met in 1999. I hired her on the spot.”
O’Brien calls Hubacker her role model.
“Harriet is a very unique person with a strong personality,” said O’Brien. “In my 25 years in adult education, I have never seen a person do the things she has done for her students.”
When COVID-19 hit in 2020, HCDE’s adult education program had to move online.
“Most part-time teachers just wait for directions from above, but she took on a leadership role with her technology skills and teaching expertise,” said O’Brien. “She literally came out with her own teaching materials and trained over 40 ESL teachers to help the whole ESL team transition from face-to-face to virtual teaching.”
For Hubacker, then 88 years young, it was a welcome challenge.
“I love teaching. I would have gone crazy during COVID if I hadn’t been teaching,” said Hubacker. “I used to think, ‘don’t let them know how old I am because they might fire me.’ Now I think, ‘oh well, might as well.’”
For more than 20 years, Hubacker has found fulfillment in using her extensive personal and professional experience to serve her students.
“In terms of my work life, the last 20 years of my life teaching adults has been a real joy,” she affirms. “Teaching makes me feel good. It involves my creativity, and it makes me feel youthful.”
HCDE, she says, is where she’s found peace.
“There’s probably no one else I could be working for right now. I don’t know many places that would have a 90-year-old teaching!” said Hubacker. “The very fact that HCDE has so many older, retired teachers is fantastic because we don’t lose our brains. I think that’s probably one of the greatest things about HCDE.”