Dr. Harris was born in Aberdeen, S.D. on June 5, 1923. He graduated from Sturgis (SD) high school in 1942, and the following year enrolled at Chicago Evangelistic Institute, graduating from CEI with a B.S.L degree. Further academic achievements include a B.A. from William Penn College, an M.A. from Drake University, and a P.H.D from The State University of Iowa.
An ordained minister in the Wesleyan Church, he had been a pastor, evangelist, and educator. He served at Vennard College in various capacities for thirty-nine years, nineteen years as its President.
Upon his retirement from Vennard College in 1987 he and his wife moved to Ankeny. At that time he became an International Pastor for World Gospel Mission until 1997. In 1999 Dr. and Mrs. Harris moved to West Des Moines, Iowa.
He was contributor to several religious periodicals and scholarly journals, and authored three books. He was named “Alumnus Of The Year” by his Alma Mater, was a member of the honor society Delta Epsilon Chi, and was named “Holiness Exponent Of The Year” by the Christian Holiness Association. In 1999 he was elected President-Emeritus of Vennard College. His hobbies were reading, golf, and travel. It was a special day when he could have his granddaughters join him in chores around the home, or in opportunities to mentor them in their walk with the Lord.
He is survived by his wife Sue of West Des Moines, son Robert of Chicago, daughters Sharon of West Des Moines and Sandra of Los Angeles, two grand daughters, Mischelle Cox of Fairfield , IA and Mrs. Troy Gentry of Jackson, MS, and four great-grandchildren, Tayler, Clayton, Tori, and Cody Gentry, and a sister-in-law, Josephine Rae Harris of Brandon, SD. Survivors also include 8 nieces and 9 nephews.
Memorial contributions may be made to Scholarship Fund of Vennard College, PO Box 29, University Park, IA 52595.
You have heard a lot today about Dr. Harris the minister and educator. Now I would like to give you a glimpse of Dr. Harris the family man, in the words of those who knew him as brother, husband, father and grandfather.
Dr. Harris’ brother, Russell, preceded him to Heaven. A story he told at Dr. and Mrs. Harris’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration – and many other family occasions – reveals a different side of Dr. Harris than the world usually saw.
“One night when I was about 6, I was asleep when something soft tickled my cheek and woke me up,” Russell said. “Alarmed, I called out to Merne, asking what it was that I had felt. He said a bald eagle had flown through the window to carry me away and brushed me with its wing. The truth is that he had pulled a feather from his pillow and rubbed it across my cheek. It happened several more times in the days and weeks that followed, until Merne grew bored with his little trick. I was too young to realize that my leg was being pulled, and the trauma of those incidents scarred me for life with a mortal fear of anything feathered,” Russell concluded. In fairness it should be noted that Dr. Harris recalled the incident in question very differently, but on this one his credibility is at least suspect.
Watching him command a pulpit, few observers would have realized that by nature Dr. Harris was a shy introvert. “Of all the students at CEI, I thought Merne might become the best preacher, but I wasn’t sure how good a pastor he would be,” his wife Sue recalled. “When we were pastoring our first churches in Michigan, he said he would help me every night with the dishes if I would go calling with him. Making small talk definitely was not his strength, which just shows what God was able to accomplish. Alumni who attended the many dinner rallies we conducted across the country would ever have guessed that each time he had to overcome the initial instinct of the shy person to run and hide. I guess the bashful boy from the sticks of South Dakota never completely went away.”
Supporting a growing family on a Vennard salary was a constant challenge, and there was seldom money for non-essentials. Bob learned an important lesson about priorities one summer when he wanted a new baseball glove that the family couldn’t afford. Finally, at family dinner one night, Dr. Harris said to his sulking son, “I’m going to tell you a story, and when I’m done, if you still want me to buy you a new baseball glove, I will.” Bob readily agreed to his dad’s terms, thinking that a new glove was in the bag.
So Dr. Harris began his story. “When I was in high school, I always envied the letter sweaters that the other boys wore,” he recalled. “In my senior year, I won a letter for debate, and I asked my dad if he would buy me a letter sweater. He explained that we couldn’t afford it, but I kept pestering him until I came home one day and found a new letter sweater laid out on my bed. Ecstatic, I asked Mother to sew my letter on for me, and she did.
“But at supper that night, the only things on the table were a bowl of saltines and four glasses of water. And for the next week, we had crackers and water at every meal, because Dad had spent the grocery money on my letter sweater. When I realized what he had done, I would have gladly given back the sweater, but it was too late. I continued to wear it, because it was the only sweater I had, but I was ashamed every time I put it on.”
The story had a predictable ending, Bob remembers. “By the time he finished, we all were in tears, and needless to say, the baseball glove was forgotten. But when my birthday rolled around a few weeks later, I opened my present from Mom and Dad and there was my new glove. And no, there were no crackers on the menu that night.”
Dr. Harris had a finely honed appreciation for irony, and Sharon recalls an incident in which it was put to the test. “We were living in Iowa City at the time, while Dad was on sabbatical from Vennard and studying for his Ph.D. at the University of Iowa. Every Saturday, he drove to University Park to take care of college business, and this particular Saturday I was going with him.
“I was 11 at the time and going through a clumsy stage. It seemed that at nearly every meal, I tipped over my milk glass or made some other kind of mess. At breakfast that morning, I did it again, and Dad gave me a good scolding. “You’re too old to be so careless,” he insisted. But not two minutes later, as he stirred brown sugar into his oatmeal, the bowl slipped in his hands and the contents wound up all over his tie, shirt and suit pants.
“We all froze in place, until a sheepish grin crept across Dad’s face – whereupon we all burst out laughing. And I don’t remember any more lectures about being careless.”
Propriety and fairness were important to Dr. Harris, which meant that when his daughters enrolled at Vennard, he was determined to treat them like any other student – at least on campus. “Daddy turned me in several times for infractions of the rules, and if I wanted to see him about college matters I had to make an appointment through his secretary, like everybody else,” Sandy recalled.
On one occasion, however, his fatherly instincts took over and Dr. Harris pulled rank on Sandy’s behalf. “In my sophomore year, I was in Christ Life Singers, and we were getting new outfits for the year. Professor Anderson was previewing the outfits for Dr. Harris, and Dad noticed that a red dress had been selected for me. Dad always liked me better in blue, and asked if I could have a blue dress instead. Dad never mentioned the incident, but Professor Anderson told me later. ‘I was surprised by his request, because it was so out of character for Dr. Harris,’ he said. ‘It was such a dad thing to do.’”
Few people ever heard Dr. Harris speak in a raised voice. When discipline was necessary in the classroom or at home, he maintained control with a firm but quiet tone – or, more effective still, “the look” of disapproval that could freeze the recipient in his tracks. But granddaughter Jenny recalls a time when his legendary control broke down. “He was teaching me to drive,” she recalls. “We had gone out to Saylorville Lake where there was a big, empty parking lot with nothing to run into.
“I got behind the wheel, and grandpa very methodically gave me instructions: check the mirrors, start the car, put it in gear and give it some gas. And I did – I floored it. That led to a quiet lecture about taking it easy. After practicing that a few times, he said to try backing up. I put it in reverse and in my nervousness again floored it. Another lecture – a little firmer that time.
After a few more practice runs of going forward and backing up, grandpa said to drive around the parking lot a bit. All was going well until I veered too close to a ditch on the side of the access road. “Watch out for the ditch,” he cautioned. I thought I was doing fine, but apparently he thought otherwise, because the warning came again, more urgently. “Watch out for the ditch.” When I still didn’t seem to get it, I suddenly heard grandpa yelling “the ditch, the ditch, the ditch,” loud enough to be heard on the other side of the lake. I slammed on the brakes, and that ended the first day’s lesson. But by the next day his courage had returned and he took me back for another try. After working with me every day for a week, he had grandma join us. He was proud to show off my progress – but grandma had heard about my earlier misadventures and I’m not sure how thrilled she was to be along for the ride.”
Dr. Harris had a special knack for letting people know how important they were to him. For grandson Troy Gentry, it happened one day not long after he and Jenny were married. As the “new guy” in the family, he was still feeling his way, particularly with Jenny’s revered grandfather. Troy and Jenny were Vennard students at the time, and Dr. Harris was on campus for a visit.
As they stood talking on the main floor of the administration building, they were approached by a group that included Vennard’s president and board chairman. “It was clear they wanted to talk to him,” Troy said. “I was about to move away when Dr. Harris said, ‘You’ll have to excuse me for a few minutes, gentlemen, I’m talking to my grandson right now.’ Not grandson-in-law, but grandson. That one word changed everything for me, and I knew he had accepted me as part of the family.”
When Shelly was in 6th grade, she wanted to earn some extra money. So her grampy, as she called him, hired her to pick up crab apples from his back yard. Since the crab apple tree was very productive, the chore lasted for several weeks. One day, Shelly couldn’t come over as planned, so Dr. Harris picked up the apples himself. On her next visit, he said she owed him for doing her job. He was just teasing, and she knew it, but she called his bluff and offered him all the change she had in her pocket – 22 cents. He refused to take it, of course, but before she left that day she hid the 22 cents in his desk.
Not long after that, the 22 cents came back to her unexpectedly in the form of three dimes. That began an ongoing exchange of those same three dimes that lasted until he went to Heaven. Shelly and her grampy both put a lot of thought and creativity into how they would return the dimes to the other person. They always tried to outdo the other – not for one-upsmanship but because they both realized that it gave the other so much enjoyment.
Shelly’s favorite dime exchange occurred shortly after she had graduated from Vennard and was serving as the Christian education director at Central Methodist Church in Oskaloosa. “One payday, I got a call from my boss asking me to come in and pick up my check because a special bonus was included,” she remembers. “Imagine my shock when I opened the pay envelope and found the three dimes. Grampy had called my boss and enlisted her help in making the surprise happen.”
The dimes had returned to Dr. Harris not long before he passed away, and now they’re back in Shelly’s possession. Those three dimes are a powerful symbol for her of the love she and her grampy shared, and I know she will treasure them all her life.
I was delighted to be asked to read the family tribute because it gives me a chance to share with you one of my favorite memories of Uncle Merne. [insert anecdote, if appropriate].
At the beginning of my remarks, I said that I would be showing you another side of Dr. Harris. But in reality, the man his family knew and loved is the same man that all who came in contact with him experienced. That’s what happens when someone lives to have the character of Christ manifested through them, as Dr. Harris did.