Deceased July 30, 1990
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Johnny, We Hardly Knew You
On July 30, 1990, John R. Harris was in a fatal automobile accident, dying as he had lately live, causing grave harm to himself but none to anyone else—aside from those that watched him helpless.
The end of death closed in on him …;
His fitting spirit left his limbs and made its way to Hades’ house;
It mourned his fate, his youth and manhood lost.
And we should mourn the same. He posed us more to mourn than most.
Turn Churchill’s insult inside out: John was an immodest man with much to be immodest about. While all freshmen brought promise, few brought the assurance it might have implied. John brought the looks of a chestnut-haired Peter O’Toole (Eat your liver, Ronald Reagan!) and a sonorous baritone (such a voice to be glib in!). He also brought the blarney of the Irishman, compounded, or aggravated, by the brass of the New Yorker. His assurance was easy rather than edgy, though, because it was genuine it rested on immense promise. Whether or not it was earned, he was, as the true New Yorker urges, “entitled.” Accepting “[gifts] gods have given” is the very opposite of committing hubris.
Still, time and chance happen to every man. Something went wrong. Like his car later, John’s entire life swerved off the track. As many gifts the gods had given John—and more—they snatched away. Once he and I revived our acquaintance, in 1982, I learned he had been under treatment for depression through the intervening 20 years. A pedestrian world reckoned him 100 percent disabled; a standard measure counted his days blighted and stunted. Self-confidence had indeed fled. Yet self-pity had not supplanted it: He bore his pain with the stoicism of the New Englander he had become. Nor had intellect shed its luster: When he could work at all, he taught matter from the farther marches of mathematics.
Maybe John did fly too near the sun. Your disobedient correspondent, who my own self “with the gods have striven,” would have been indiscreet enough to sound a warning based on his error if I had seen an error, but I saw none. What chastens me (while not instructing me) is the sheer length of his fall.
Courage consisting in grace under pressure, John’s last few years afford us two conspicuous examples, both of which can instruct us (while chastening us). First, John contributed to the annual fund, in Gibbon’s line on Robert Guiscard, “with a liberal hand.” Although he belongs with the Class of 1965 (a class, in Gibbon’s line on the Emperor Vespasian, parsimony”), and although he never graduated with any class and although he subsisted on a public stipend, he mustered much more than a widow’s mite—which itself would have been commendable. Gaze upon his good works, we that pleading constraint contribute in two figures even as we earn in five or six, and mightily repent.
Second, John attended our 20th Reunion. Although since college he had not padded his resume but had suffered an uncushioned fall from a great height, he subjected himself to his hard-charging classmates. He was magnificent. We will never see him again. We will get our next, best chance at our 30th. Whereat fail not.
Our sympathy goes to John’s mother and father. No parent should have to bury a child.
Patrick J. Murray ‘65