Fulton friends, family, coworkers recall legacy John Harris leaves in wake of his death

John C. Harris shares his office at The Callaway Bank with a preschool class in January 1995. Harris, who led the bank for more than 60 years and helped start several key community service organizations, died Thursday at the age of 96. Current bank president and CEO Kim Barnes described Harris as someone who “liked people and wanted people to feel valued.”

John C. Harris shares his office at The Callaway Bank with a preschool class in January 1995. Harris, who led the bank for more than 60 years and helped start several key community service organizations, died Thursday at the age of 96. Current bank president and CEO Kim Barnes described Harris as someone who “liked people and wanted people to feel valued.”

“When you rely on a community to keep your doors open, you owe them. You must give back.” —John C. Harris.

According to Debbie LaRue, vice president and director of marketing/public relations for The Callaway Bank, that was a lesson Harris lived by and tried to instill in others, the proof being the repetition of that quote — almost verbatim — by almost everyone else the Fulton Sun spoke with about the unassuming pillar of the Fulton community, who died Thursday at the age of 96.

“Like a lot of other people have, (John) believed if you’re going to make a living from a community, you’ve got to give back to it,” his brother, O.T. Harris said. “This he did through a number of community organizations over the years. I would say that would be an important part of his legacy.”

Noting that neither John nor his wife, Mary, would have been comfortable with heaps of praise for that legacy, O.T. Harris said the reason that philosophy was so important to John Harris — indeed to the entire Harris family, and by extension The Callaway Bank — was simply because “that’s part of your job. If you live in a community, you’ve got to be involved.”

As one of the founders and longtime leaders of both the Fulton Housing Authority and what would eventually become the Callaway County United Way, as well as countless other Callaway charitable organizations, Harris will long be remembered in the Fulton Community as a civic leader.

To those who knew him — family, friends and coworkers — it will be the myriad small kindnesses, dignity and respect he treated everyone around him with for which Harris will most fondly be remembered.

LaRue described John Harris as “the epitome of a gentleman,” adding that he always greeted everyone he came across — usually with a slight bow of the head as if tipping a hat to ladies — as a friend.

“He had a smile that just warmed you,” LaRue said.

Longtime friend and coworker Curt Yancey, who noted he worked with or for John Harris for more than three decades agreed that Harris “was a man of great character.”

“He was the kind of fellow that was always patient, easy to get along with and work for — I never saw him get in an argument with anybody,” Yancey said. “I’ll miss his sincerity and loyalty to the bank and his employees and the customers too.”

Kim Barnes, current president and CEO of The Callaway Bank, shared that assessment.

“What I remember most is his constancy. He treated everyone the same way regardless of their status,” Barnes said, noting that he took time more than once to make even a lobby receptionist/secretary like herself at the start of her career feel like a valued member of the team.

“I remember I was in the lunchroom one day, just me and John, and I was so intimidated, but he always made you feel at ease,” she said, recalling one particular incident. “He said something like, ‘I want to compliment you on the correspondence you write. You write a good letter.’

“For him to notice a little detail like that ... That’s a cherished memory.”

Another of Barnes’ story prompted a laugh in the retelling.

“He walked into the lobby one day whistling a tune and stopped halfway across and said, ‘I cannot think where that is from,’” Barnes recalled. “That got us all talking for a while trying to figure it out while he kept whistling. It turned out to be the theme from ‘Murder, She Wrote.’”

Barnes, LaRue and neighbor Steve Moore all made note of the fact that Harris walked to and from work every day, making countless connections along the way.

“He always had a kind word to say for people he met,” Moore said.

Barnes said seeing Harris walk into the bank each day, “you just knew the world was right.”

“Even when he retired he would still walk in and say hello,” she said.

Yancey recalled that Harris often made a daily round of the bank to make sure he had a word or two with everyone there.

“He was a fellow that knew all of his employees by name, and knew their families,” Yancey said.

Barnes attributed Harris with imparting a number of important lessons over the span of her career with the bank.

“Just getting to see how he made decisions had a big impact. He was always decisive, yet full of consideration — he really tried to think about what was best for the whole,” she said. “He recognized that you do things for the long haul ... not just for the impact on you or your business, but the broader ripple effect.”

Like O.T. Harris, Barnes also made note of John Harris’ humility.

“He never talked about his accomplishments — he believed the action was the thing, not the fame associated with doing it,” she said. “He was privileged, and he knew that. He felt blessed and wanted to share that, but didn’t want credit for it.

“To see that over the years was such a strong influence.”

Barnes said she came across a servant-leadership model several years ago that emphasized many of the lessons Harris imparted over the years.

“I was like, ‘I don’t need this, I’ve already learned it,’” she said.

Barnes said that attitude of effective leadership involving a strong commitment to the community carried over into the way Harris conducted business as well.

“John’s philosophy was that when you are a community banker you hold people’s lives in your hand, and you don’t take that lightly,” she said. “You want everyone to prosper, and that philosophy carries through everything we do here.

“We try to emulate him every day.”

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