Posted on: February 18, 2019
Dr. Norman S. Harris, 85, died peacefully and surrounded by his family at his home, Geddes, in Amherst County, Virginia, on Wednesday, December 12, 2018.
Norm was born on July 18, 1933, in Lynchburg, Va. He was the youngest son of Richard Adams Harris and Martha Norman Latham. As an 18 month-old infant, Norm lost his left eye to retinoblastoma. He never looked back. He graduated from E.C. Glass High School and then Virginia Military Institute. At VMI, he served as President of the Honor Court and Chairman of the Ring Committee. As Vice-President and enthusiastic bass in the Glee Club, he performed at the White House for President Eisenhower. Based upon academic standing, character, and achievement, Norman’s classmates chose him to be their Valedictorian in 1955. He was awarded VMI’s highest student honor, the Society of Cincinnati Metal, awarded for “distinguished excellence of character and efficiency of service.”
Norman then embarked on what he would later refer to as a “checkered career.” He taught civil engineering at VMI and Drexel University, worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon near Mt. Hood employing mule trains to survey what would become roads through this ancient wilderness, and earned a Rockefeller Scholarship Fellowship to study at Yale Divinity School. 1950’s Yale was a place of intellectual and moral ferment where Norm experienced the pivotal influences of theologians Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich; Tillich’s The Courage to Be would be quoted from memory for the next 50+ years. By 1959, Norm discovered his true calling: medicine – a career that rewarded his curiosity, kindness, intellect, and love of story in the service of his fellow man. He matriculated at the University Of Virginia School of Medicine and served as class president. Alphabetized seating placed Mr. Harris close to classmate, Joanna Hackman. Joanna would later recall with laughter that his first words to her were, “Jo, you smell like a pine tree.” In time, Joanna would learn that a comparison to nature by Norm was high praise indeed and soon after would come to appreciate Norman as “the finest human being I have ever known.” Norm and Joanna were married as medical students and soon started their family. Norm pursued internal medical residency and pulmonary fellowship training at Vanderbilt University.
While training during the Vietnam War, Norm was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army, and was stationed at the Nashville Armed Forces Examining Station. In 1971, Norm and his young family returned to Lynchburg to join Medical Associates where Norm’s quiet brilliance, gentle kindness, and dedication to taking the time to listen made him beloved by patients and their families. From an early age, Norm was happiest being outside, whether biking Rt. 501 over the mountains to Glasgow, hiking the Appalachian Trail, or canoeing the James River. His deep and abiding love for nature remained unto the end. He was an excellent shot: rabbits and groundhogs trespassing in the family garden soon learned to fear his monocular vision. August was spent in northern Maine with his family at their cabin on a lake in the shadow of Mount Katahdin. At “Caribou,” 43 miles from the closest town, he restored his soul by canoeing, hiking, building, and enjoying vigorous discussions over meals, books, and games of Parcheesi. Following Norm’s retirement from medicine, he and Joanna embarked on a restoration of the historic home, Geddes, in Amherst County. Norman was chief landscaper and arborist at Geddes, where physical challenge, natural beauty, and his love for Joanna were sources of inspiration.
He continued to volunteer with local chapter of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy well into his 70’s and was on the board of the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway Trail. Norman was known by friends and neighbors for his ability to make a perfect gin and tonic, which encouraged the sharing of conversation amidst the beauty of Geddes’ back fields and the Blue Ridge Mountains. He took joy in complimenting Joanna’s cooking often saying “Oh, what a colorful plate!” and “Eating is so much fun.” Norman’s outstanding character shone through his actions. As stated in his valedictory address, integrity “demands personal honor over personal advantage.” Norm’s empathy was palpable. When the world seemed unkind to those he loved, he would gently ask, “A penny for your thoughts?” He was a fierce advocate for reason and family and grace. He believed in the potential for true greatness in his fellow humans.
Typically reserved, he had a keen sense of fun and irreverence, at times offering a gentle rebuke, usually said with a smile, “They are reported to be a child of God – but damned hard to prove.” Even when dementia took away his ability to understand the day to day, his profound and freely-expressed affection for his family and friends, his knowing wit, and kind smile were a testament to his character. As Norman wrote in a letter to the editor, “I strongly believe that a vigorous, healthy and meaningful life calls for doctors and patients to do all that should be done and nothing that should not. When a patient has been irreversibly robbed of his humanity and person by a massive stroke or other disease, it is poor theology and certainly poor medicine to impose prolonged, heroic care.” His embrace of a meaningful, humane, peaceful death surrounded by family spoke to his wisdom.
He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Joanna; his children and their spouses; beloved grandchildren; a brother and sisters-in-law; and numerous nieces, nephews, and great nieces and nephews. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, or The Adult Care Center of Central Virginia, on whose board Norm served.