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Bobby Harrison: In Memoriam --- Issued September 27

In the Spring, 2005 issue of News and Views, the Erie Housing Authority gave tribute to Bobby Harrison, the executive director of the John F. Kennedy Center. On Sunday, September 24, Bobby Harrison died. With one voice, the community responded: "We have lost a great man."

To honor Mr. Harrison, we reprint here the text of our Spring 2005 article on him which we hope provides a glimpse of his greatness.


 

Bobby Harrison is all about the needs of the "whole, unique person" - the person who needs a job to feed his family, the person who needs athletics to develop the qualities that will carry him through life, the person who needs help to become an artisan rather than an academic, the person who needs help paying for college, the person who is disadvantaged and needs help just to make ends meet.

"When it comes to being disadvantaged, we're all the same," Harrison says. "The disadvantaged white man is in the same boat as the disadvantaged black. We're all the same, all the same."

Harrison, in his 37 years of service to the Erie Community, has recognized that fact and acted upon it, establishing everything from youth recreation programs for football, boxing, wrestling, and softball, to job training programs, to college student placement programs, to food programs for diabetic in senior public housing.

On Thursday, May 5, 2005, Harrison was recognized for his commitment and contributions to the community. The new football field at the Rodger Young Park, East 18th Street and Downing Avenue, was named the Bobby Harrison Field.

"When it comes to football and youth in the City of Erie, I can't think of a more deserving individual than Bobby Harrison, who has dedicated his life to the betterment of all of the people in our community," said John E. Horan, executive director of the Authority. "His quiet manner does not reveal his determination to help everyone who comes his way and needs his help."

Harrison graduated from Okolona College, Mississippi, in 1963 on a football scholarship. He went to Chicago after graduation, worked at a steel mill for a while, and in 1964, came to Erie. He took his first job in this city at General Electric, where he pulled metal chips out of machinery. When a job opened on an assembly line - building electric motors for the U.S. Navy's torpedoes - Harrison took it. And he did very well at it - perhaps too well.

He worked faster than anyone else on the line, turning out two motors per shift, while everyone else built just one. That made people angry, he says, and eventually, more senior employees apparently persuaded his manager to drop him from the line because Harrison made them look bad.

Was it discrimination? "That's part of why I lost the job, no doubt. But I was never harassed to my face, because they knew if they messed with me I would get all over them. I was physically fit and and they knew it.

It was at GE that Harrison became interested in social work. "I saw a need in the community. People having problems. Economic and social problems. Race relations. Job problems. And nobody doing hardly anything about it. I did not want to see people suppressed, and I thought that if I got into that field, working with the people, we could all work together and get something done."

After three years at GE, Harrison took a $5,000 cut in pay to work at the Neighborhood Service Center, at East 21 st. and Holland streets, where he became a caseworker dealing with people on welfare, people needing housing, employment, and counseling.
In 1972, Harrison was named executive director of the John F. Kennedy Center, Inc., a position he holds to this day.

Snapshot of Harrison For Erie:

  • Coached the JFK Cowboy Team, which dominated the Little Gridders Football League by winning seven consecutive champiomships in the 1970s.
  • Founded the six-team Flagship Niagara Football League in 2001 for area community youth.
  • Founded Non-Metallic Machinery, Inc., in the late 1980s, to manufacture machinery to be sold on the open market -- as an economic development tool to help fund the JFK Center and provide jobs.
  • Developed, with Penn State, a low-sodium meal for diabetics sold in the open market.
  • Opened the first certified pharmacy in a community center - JFK Center - in the early 1980s.
    Columnist for the Erie Times-News, 1971-1981.
  • Developed Erie's first neighborhood safety patrol and neighborhood crime watch program.