When attorney George “Rocky” Harper advised clients on international investing, finance, franchising, commercial transactions and aviation, many followed his wisdom.
Before he graduated from the University of Miami School of Law in 1970, Harper knew all about foreign investment risk. Harper’s family owned and ran a 10,000-acre cattle and rice ranch in Sancti Spíritus, Cuba, which was expropriated when Fidel Castro took power.
His late father, George Kitchens Harper, managed to wrest just over $195,000 from Castro, in the form of a check. But it was better than many others fared under the new regime in 1959.
“While he was not compensated for his land or the value of his cattle and crops, at least he got something,” his son George Harper said in a 2009 Miami Herald story.
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Five months after the transaction, the Harper family, including a then 17-year-old George Harper, who had been born in Havana, left Cuba for the United States. Harper arrived two days after graduating high school from Havana’s Ruston Academy.
His late mother, Cuban-born Elizabeth Pardo Harper, wanted her son to finish school so that he would be ready for college. He earned a degree in industrial management from Georgia Tech, served in the U.S. Navy and became a U.S. citizen before earning his law degree.
Harper, who lived in Coral Gables, died Feb. 20 at 74 from pneumonia, two months after he was diagnosed with liver cancer. He worked at the Miami firm he started in 2002 — Harper Meyer Perez Hagen O’Connor Albert & Dribin — until the end, said his son and legal partner, Steven Harper. Before Harper Meyer, he was a partner at Paul, Landy, Beiley and Harper and later at Steel Hector & Davis.
Harper helped large and small businesses avoid pitfalls common to international investors. His practices included international business transactions, inbound and outbound foreign investments, aviation and banking. Among his clients: Colombia’s Avianca, Empresas Polar from Venezuela and Latin American chicken chain Pollo Campero from Guatemala.
Protect yourself before you make any commitments. There are a lot of sharks all over the world.
Attorney George Harper in the Miami Herald, 2009.
He was also tapped frequently to speak on U.S.-Cuba relations. Harper was named to the Hispanic Business Magazine Legal Elite List and Miami Today’s Book of Leaders. He received the Inter-American Law Review Lawyer of the Americas Award and was named Lawyer of the Americas by the University of Miami Law Review.
His advice, from a 2009 Miami Herald business article: “You have to do your homework. Know your partner, know your market and know the laws of the country where you plan to do business.”
Harper, president of the Inter-American Bar Association in 2005 and chair of the International Law Section of The Florida Bar in 1989-1990, shared his expertise as an adjunct professor at the St. Thomas University Law School and UM’s law school, where he also served as president of the Law Alumni Association.
“He was a popular teacher; students enjoyed him,” said Dennis Lynch, dean emeritus from the UM School of Law. “He was known in the Miami legal community as an attorney with a very strong working knowledge of doing business in Latin America, the difficulties and how to approach it. He predated a lot of other attorneys in developing that expertise.”
We had a right to impose the embargo. They did not have the right to take over our properties without compensation.
Havana-born attorney George Harper in the Miami Herald, 2015.
Outside of law, Harper was a former chairman of the board of HistoryMiami and sat on the board of its endowment fund. He also was a member of the Salvation Army’s Advisory Council.
Harper’s passions also influenced members of his family. His son Steven followed him into two careers — music and the law. During high school in Cuba, a young George Harper was a DJ on a Havana radio show, “Teenage Turntable.” When he was a boy, Steven Harper determined he would become a lawyer like his dad until he discovered pop music. For a couple of years in the late 1990s, Steven worked as a recording engineer at North Miami’s Criteria Studios.
As he saw changes coming to the music industry, Steven reverted to the early plan and became an attorney.
“He helped me come full circle and fulfill an early childhood dream,” Steven Harper said of his father. “The most important thing he ever taught me was to treat everyone with respect. That’s what he did, and it’s why he touched as many lives as he did.”
Legal partner James Meyer told the Daily Business Review that Harper was a mentor figure since they were associates together in 1989. He was “a father figure to me throughout my entire adult life, the guiding light of our firm and truly one of Miami’s greats.”
Married for 50 years to Jeanne, the couple met as children because their mothers were sorority sisters at Duke University in North Carolina. Steven said of his parents: “They were also best friends and fell in love.”
Here, too, son and father shared characteristics. Steven Harper met his wife, Betsy Colross Harper, when they were teens at Riviera Country Club in Coral Gables, where his father golfed.
Harper is also survived by his son Douglas and grandchildren Jonathan, Riley, Nicholas, Christopher, Elizabeth and James; brother Tom and sister Jean Harper.
A memorial for friends and family will be at 11 a.m. March 11 at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, 1121 Andalusia Ave., Coral Gables. A memorial to celebrate Harper’s contributions to the legal, banking and business communities will be from 5-7 p.m. March 15 at Gusman Concert Hall, 1314 Miller Dr., Coral Gables. Donations can be made to the George R. Harper Scholarship at the University of Miami School of Law.