In December, Ben Harris passed away at the age of 101, leaving an enormous void in the Northeast Kingdom. Ben, along with his wife, Rosalie, was a vital force in the community by setting an example of caring, volunteering, and serving others.
Married on Ben’s birthday, Feb. 1, 1942, Ben and Rosalie were a special couple and best friends. When asked how a couple could stay married for 72 years, Rosalie replied, “I really liked him. That sums it up.”
They began married life in Montpelier where Ben owned Nate’s Inc., a men’s clothing store. Shortly after that, Ben served in the U.S. Army. In 1949, Ben and Rosalie moved to St. Johnsbury and Ben opened another branch store. St. Johnsbury has been their home ever since. They raised three children, Gertrude (also called Chips), Andrea, and Bill, and became an integral part of the lives of people here in the Northeast Kingdom. All three children graduated from St. Johnsbury Academy.
Although the children knew their father served in the Army, it wasn’t until they were writing his obituary and looking through some of his discharge papers that they discovered he had been a marksman sharpshooter. It was a surprising fact to find out about their father, since they never heard him talk about it and there were never guns in the house when they were young.
“Dad was surprising and that may have more to do with me than with him,” Bill said. “The more I got to know him as an adult, the more complex he was. In some ways, he was incredibly simple and straightforward, but in other ways there was complexity behind the simplicity.”
One of the things that Bill talked about at the funeral was the side of his father that most people didn’t know. He was a sportsman as a young man, a remarkably good tennis player, a juggler, a drummer in a band, and a great billiards player.
“After having children, he paid more attention to family and service organizations. I don’t think he ever looked back and felt he had given up anything of himself. He was remarkably loveable and a teddy bear kind of guy.”
Ben was not only a husband, father, grandfather, friend, businessman, and community volunteer, but he was a mentor to people of all ages with his sound advice and encouragement. He often told others they should not look ahead or cross a bridge until they got there, and there was no sense in worrying about things ahead of time.
Faith played an important part in their lives. Ben and Rosalie have always been very active in the Beth El Synagogue. It was a family tradition and their lives revolved around it.
“Things were different when we were growing up,” Andrea said. “When we went anywhere, we went as a family. We went to synagogue together and we went to concerts together. We weren’t asked; it was what you did. You were home for dinner together. If there was an activity after Friday night services, it was after you went to the synagogue.”
“My parents’ faith was really part of a value system and an appreciation of culture and community,” Bill said.
Chips agrees. “It is part of who we are today.” That faith has gone with the children into the world and is a part of their own families now. “We raised our children and they had examples around them of good, moral people giving back to the world. They appreciated their grandparents.”
The family’s faith has helped them through difficult times.
Chips and her husband, David, lost their daughter, Amy, 19 years ago, after college graduation. They believe their strong Jewish community kept them going.
“One of the beautiful things is that the structure is in place and for a little while when you can’t think, that is what holds you up,” Chips said.
The Jewish community has a tradition of blowing the shofar, usually made from a ram’s horn, on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. A person calls out the words and another blows the horn and it continues in this manner for a section of the service. Starting when he was young, Ben wanted very much to be the caller of the words. After coming to St. Johnsbury and until he could no longer go to service, he performed the calling of the words every year. People said Ben was always so humble in the way he did it, and that even now, they still hear Ben’s voice in whomever is saying the words. When Ben could no longer attend services to do the calling, Rabbi Kevin Hale would visit the Harrises at home and Ben would call the words for him. Rabbi Hale, a former rabbi at Beth El Synagogue, became a very close family friend and was an officiant at Ben’s funeral service in Burlington.
Due to the significance of the shofar, the family asked that it be blown at the funeral. During the military service, David played taps at the cemetery and then Rabbi Hale blew the shofar before they folded the flag. It was a very spiritual and emotional moment for each family member.
“Dad goes on forever,” Andrea said. “The way he lived was a mensch, meaning a person of integrity and honor. That and the way he was himself is what people loved about him and what people will remember. Even if he isn’t here, the essence is still out there.”
Ben and Rosalie have both been very active in the community by serving on various boards and earning many accolades. They set an example of community service not only for their children but also for the people around them. Some of the organizations they were involved with were Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, the Fairbanks Museum, Caledonia Home Health Care, St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, Kiwanis Club, and Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce. Ben received the Northeast Kingdom Chamber Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. On September 30, 2014, the St. Johnsbury Kiwanis Club announced that Ben had earned the 75-year Legion of Honor Award, a certificate issued by Kiwanis International. Ben also worked with SCORE, a non-profit organization where his mentoring skills were put to good use in helping small businesses.
Whenever Ben was on a board or committee, Rosalie was in the background helping and vice versa.
“If something needed to be done, Ben would roll up his sleeves and start helping,” said Rosalie. “Whatever was needed, we were there. That was a theme all of our lives. Ben led by example. We were helpmates for each other.”
Family life consisted of structure and expectations.
“You work at marriage,” said Rosalie. “You learn how to live by it and it improves everything you do little by little, so you have grace in your own development. We helped each other maintain that posture.”
“We knew that actions had consequences,” Andrea added, “and that it’s about being proud of yourself and proud to represent your family. You are doing it as much for yourself as for your parents.”
“One of the things that people have said is that Dad had a remarkable way of making people feel respected and that they had self-respect to maintain,” Bill said. “When someone has that expectation of you, you think twice about misbehaving.”
Ben was known for his organizational skills. He was always prepared and if there was a way to do something better, he was there to help. He did not want to be just a member of an organization, but he wanted to help it grow and improve.
Former St. Johnsbury Academy Headmaster Bernier Mayo and his wife, Jeanette, a former teacher at the St. Johnsbury Junior High School, remember Ben as always being on time, dressed professionally, and proud of his family.
“Ben was a true gentleman,” Jeanette says. She also remembers that Ben gave the prayer and benediction for many years at the St. Johnsbury Academy graduations. When he stopped, Rosalie continued the tradition.
Patty Caplan remembers meeting the Harrises when she moved to St. Johnsbury after marrying her husband, Harvey. They became life-long friends. Patty said, “Both of them are amazing people and they have done so much for St. Johnsbury. Ben will be sorely missed.”
Ben and Rosalie had difficult times just like any other family. Ben was a total optimist, though.
“I think a long time ago Mom and Dad wanted to be prepared for change and they planned as much as you can for this time of life,” Andrea said, “and we have been able to help them by doing what they planned. They faced life head on and when sickness or something else came, they dealt with it. Everyone has an expiration date and it is how you live your life and how you move forward that counts.”
Does a love story end after seven decades? Not for Ben and Rosalie. Their love lives on in their children and grandchildren, but also in all the lives they touched especially here in the Northeast Kingdom.
Andrea says it perfectly. “Dad asked Mom and she said yes and the rest is history.”