Sanford E. Harper II’s USF education was cut short when a 1988 imprisonment for fighting with a police officer took him out of college for two years. Twenty years later, he is back at USF to get his degree.
All in all, Harper — known by his pen name, “Dr. San Man,” by his friends — has been arrested more than 20 times, according to police records. These arrests include charges of possession of marijuana, trespassing, solicitation and failing to appear in court.
Though Harper has returned to campus to continue his education, one crucial lesson came from a jail cell, not the classroom.
“I went to prison to learn how to become free,” he said.
Since then, the 45-year-old has run for mayor of Tampa, written a book of poems, launched an educational summer program for young men and visited Africa. Now, he’s in the midst of his latest journey — finishing his undergraduate degree in religious studies.
His major is fitting, considering Harper said he used his time in jail to become closer to God.
“I’ve always been spiritually enlightened, but I lost that spirituality,” he said. “I think that a lot of the problems that I went through in my life was when I tried to deviate from spirituality.”
Because of his variety of experiences, Harper likens himself to Forrest Gump’s free-spirited love interest, Jenny.
“I ran all the way around the world to end up back at USF to do what I wanted to do in the first place, which was get my degree and teach in Africa,” he said.
In December 2004, Harper visited Africa as part of a Hillsborough Community College program and bought land there. Once he gets his degree, Harper said he hopes to teach there, as well as in the rest of the world.
“He’s probably one of the most diligent go-getters I’ve known,” said longtime friend Don Pittman, a Winter Haven radio station manager who lets Harper set up poetry booths at events. “As long as I’ve known him, he’s always been in school, going one step more.”
Harper grew up in a sheltered military home in Japan. When he visited Korea as a child, he wrote poetry to express his concern for the inequalities there and has used the outlet to express himself ever since.
“They kind of kept us sheltered, so I wasn’t prepared to be in Korea and see the kind of deprivation and starvation that I saw,” he said. “It just blew my mind, and I just wrote a poem, and that’s been like therapy for me.”
Mary Sanders, Harper’s aunt, recalled the poet’s childhood:
“He has always been very talkative, very knowledgeable, very happy,” she said. “He seemed much older than he was.”
During a 15-year period as an Ybor City bartender, Harper said he recited poetry to impress girls. When he realized people enjoyed his work, he made a poem pamphlet and sold 5,000 copies in a few years.
Harper, under his pseudonym, “Dr. San Man,” is working on a book that he plans to have published. It was his poetry and philosophical demeanor that earned him the nickname “Doctor” among his friends, while “San Man” is a name people started calling him that just sort of stuck, he said.
“Poetry, in the end, will probably be his career,” Pittman said.
Harper is also active in the Tampa community. He has been creating programs to help youths since 1987.
“He has amazing involvement with kids,” Pittman said.
Harper’s summer program, Juveniles United in a Community Effort (JUICE), taught life skills to elementary-school-aged boys. They learned vocabulary words to use in job interviews and how to be self-sufficient, Harper said. Many of the children involved were from low-income families, and some did not have fathers in their lives, he said.
“If nobody else wants to be their father, I’ll do it,” Harper said. He almost disbanded the program — which was criticized by the state in the early 2000s for not being properly registered — several times, but new boys continued to show interest.
“I’ve tried to give up, but they find me,” he said.
Harper said he became frustrated with the city government in 1994 concerning the allocation of grant money. His request for a grant to fund a children’s program was denied.
“It made me so mad that I decided to run for mayor of Tampa,” he said.
He began his campaign but was arrested for soliciting without a permit before the first vote was cast.
“They didn’t really want me talking that much, so I was arrested several times for nonsense, I think,” he said.
Harper said he did not like USF when he attended in the 1980s, but he enjoys it now and is “full of Bull,” or school spirit. He even joined the Beef Studs, a student organization whose members paint themselves green and gold, wear horned helmets and hula skirts, and cheer at USF sporting events.
“It’s just different. It’s fun. I’m having a blast. I think everybody who’s 50 should go back to school,” he said.