The former Central Area resident and Garfield High School football star appeared to be embarrassed as longtime friends, along with city, county and state officials, heaped praise on him at the site of the new Madison Valley park at the corner of 24th Avenue East and East Howell Street.
But that didn’t stop speaker after speaker from lauding a man who, in 1937, became the first African-American football captain in history at the University of Iowa. Harris – who has lived with his wife, Dorothy, on Queen Anne Hill for around three decades – was inducted this year into the Iowa Athletic Hall of Fame.
He went on to get a medical degree in 1945 from Meharry Medical School in Nashville, Tenn., one of the few medical schools at the time that were open to black students.
Harris, 86, specialized in dermatology and opened in downtown Seattle what became the largest practice in that specialty west of the Rockies. That’s how King County Executive Ron Sims said he came to meet the man.
“I had a case of eczema that just wouldn’t go away,” Sims said, adding that he remembered thinking what a good-looking man Harris was. “He still is,” Sims said.
Describing him as a consummate individual, Sims also said Harris is one of the more remarkable men in Seattle. “He is not only a hero, he’s a renaissance man.”
Prominent Central Area resident Carver Gayton grew up just a few blocks away from Harris.
“From my point of view, this is something long overdue,” Gayton said of the park’s dedication.
Describing Harris as a role model for the black community, Gayton said he and his friends dreamed of one day growing up to be like the accomplished athlete and scholar.
“He has influenced generations of men, especially African-American men,” Gayton added.
Mayor Greg Nickels described Harris as a true hometown hero, while an aide to Gov. Gary Locke presented the doctor with a proclamation declaring Nov. 13, 2002, to be Dr. Homer Harris Day in Washington state.
Stimson Bullitt, from the well-known Bullitt media family, said he and Harris became friends 65 years ago, adding that Harris treated 10 members of the Bullitt family over the years.
“The city of Seattle bestows honor on itself to make this the Homer Harris Park,” Bullitt said.
Thurston Muskelly – a citizen activist who serves as president of the Central Area District Council and the Leschi Community Council, among other positions – said in a later telephone interview that the new park is a welcome addition to the neighborhood.
“This is a man who is really something else,” he said of Harris. It was also nice of the city “to give him flowers while he’s still alive,” is how Muskelly put it.
Harris knows who donated the $1.3 million, and the person is a longtime friend, according to Karen Daubert, executive director of the Seattle Parks Foundation.
The donor approached the foundation with the idea of donating money for a park in honor of Harris, but the donor didn’t specify a location or the amount of money to be donated, she said.
“So we worked like crazy,” Daubert said of the nonprofit, private organization, which raises money and rallies support for the creation of new parks and open space in the city.
The foundation came up with a list of 13 potential sites, and after a one-and-a-half-hour meeting, the donor picked the Madison Valley location, she said.
But, in what must have been a heart-stopping moment, the foundation received a call saying the donor had reconsidered, Daubert said. The call wasn’t bad news, though.
The donor had decided the deal should also include the adjoining property, which includes a house that will be demolished, she said. The city also kicked in an additional $350,000 for the park, Daubert said of matching funds donated to the city by King County for the Pro Parks levy.
The property has been turned over to the city of Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation, which will take the lead in developing the site, Daubert said. Neighborhood residents will also have a say in how the park is developed, she said. “Ideally, if all goes well, the design work will take a year.” Daubert estimates construction will also take about a year.
Gayton said Harris is a man of few words. But the doctor – who retired two years ago – was left speechless at the dedication ceremony, and his daughter, Heather Felzenberg, stepped in to thank everyone on his behalf.
It was easy to see that Harris was pleased at the honor, though, and he was mobbed afterward by well-wishers.