Friends, family recall Fred Harris as genial, gregarious

  • This memorial to Fred Harris appeared on the bike path on Bates Street in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Frederick Harris playing baseball. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/JUDY HARRIS

  • Frederick Harris is shown with his daughter, Nicole, and his wife, Judy, at Nicole’s graduation from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2009. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/JUDY HARRIS

  • Frederick Harris is shown, above, at a University of Massachusetts game, and right, playing baseball, in these undated family photos. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS/JUDY HARRIS

  • Frederick Harris. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/JUDY HARRIS

Published: 4/5/2020 7:10:30 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Frederick Harris had a knack for making friends everywhere he went, according to his family and friends, whether he was delivering mail at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, playing or watching sports or walking the family dog on the Northampton Bikeway.

“He had it in him and was just very likable,” said Judy Harris, his wife of 49 years. “When you’re drawn to a person, that’s how it is; you’re like a moth drawn to a flame. He just attracted people with his smile, his genuineness, his willingness to help out whenever he could.”

Harris, 70, died of COVID-19 complications at Cooley Dickinson Hospital on March 25 with Judy at his side. He leaves two children, Nicole and Eric; two younger brothers, Joe and Jeffrey; and many cousins and friends.

Harris, an Amherst native known by his many friends as “Fred” or “Rick,” was the first person known to die of COVID-19 in Hampshire County. On Thursday, it was reported that another man, who was in his 70s and had preexisting health conditions, also died of the disease.

In the days following Harris’ death, friends and family, including Harris’ daughter, Nicole Harris, echoed Judy Harris’ sentiments on her husband’s gregarious and genial nature.

“He was super outgoing,” said Nicole, who lives in Salem. “His laugh was so loud and exuberant that he just made you feel super comfortable and made a point to ask you about how your day was going. He made you feel at ease, and he was just a happy guy.”

Harris moved to Northampton with Judy in 1984, and they lived just next to the Northampton Bikeway. He would often walk the family dog, Snickers, on this trail — just one of the locations where he forged many friendships.

On a portion of the path that Harris frequented, friends created a memorial that reads “Fred lived among us, beloved neighbor.”

Harris’ tendency to talk to anyone even extended to President John F. Kennedy, who visited the Amherst College campus in October 1963 to deliver a dedication speech at the groundbreaking of the college’s Robert Frost Library. It was to be Kennedy’s last speech before his assassination weeks later.

After playing sports on the Amherst College campus the day of the president’s visit, Harris “saw these guys in suits come around the corner, and he kept looking, and it was President Kennedy,” said Harris’ brother, Joe Harris.

Harris greeted Kennedy and asked him how he was doing, Joe recalled, to which he said Kennedy responded, “How are you doing, young man?” which became a fond memory for his brother.

Making a mark at UMass, on the playing field

Harris was well-known for his love of sports, whether he was playing or spectating. He excelled in a variety of sports, Judy Harris said, including football and basketball, but was “an excellent shortstop” in baseball in particular, In 1968, he was even scouted by the Boston Red Sox, the team that he grew up cheering for.

But Harris’ budding baseball career was interrupted when he was drafted the following year into the armed forces during the Vietnam War, serving for two years.

Shortly after returning from Vietnam, Harris met Judy in 1971.

“We couldn’t ask for a better husband, father, friend,” Judy said. “He’d do anything for me. He was just the best.”

In addition to Boston sports, Harris loved UMass basketball — and the basketball community loved him back, Nicole said.

“He got to know all the different coaches” by going to games and delivering mail to their offices, she said. “Because they liked him so much, he’d always have tickets to go. They would allow him just to sit on the court because he was great, he was a fun guy.”

Walter Washington, Harris’ cousin, recalled, “You’d see Rick sitting at the end of the bench, and you’d think he was a coach.”

During this time, Washington said, Harris forged a close friendship with former UMass basketball coach John Calipari, now the head men’s coach at the University of Kentucky and a Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. Calipari shared the news of Harris’ death on his Facebook page — which garnered hundreds of reactions, including comments from others who knew him at UMass — recalling that Harris was a regular at UMass basketball practices and games.

Radio and television personality Scott Coen, who got to know Harris while reporting on UMass basketball, recalled that Harris “always would be standing at the end of the UMass bench prior to the games.”

“All the players knew him,” Coen said. “He shook everyone’s hands. Same thing with the coaching staff, they all knew him. It was painfully obvious he was this special, larger-than-life guy that everybody loves.”

Harris was well known on the UMass campus at large, where he worked for 38 years before retiring in 2003. He started working for the university before he was drafted into the Vietnam War and returned to work there after his service, filling a variety of roles such as working on the grounds crew, driving vans and delivering mail.

“So many people knew him. He made an impression on so many people,” said Carolyn Safarik, who works in the UMass department of environmental conservation.

Safarik looked forward to getting the mail from Harris, who came into her office at Holdsworth Hall each day “always with a smile and a smart remark.”

“He was just a jovial person,” she continued. “Always in a good mood, always left you feeling upbeat and happy. I never once in the years that I knew him through UMass saw him grumpy or in a bad mood.”

Jennifer Brodeur lives on Bridge Street, not far from Harris, and said he was always friendly in the neighborhood. She works in the athletic department at UMass and would also cross paths with him at sports games.

“I would say he was probably like sunshine personified,” she said. “He didn’t care if you were in a position of power or the least position of power, he would talk to you no matter what. One of my favorite things about him, he would take an interest in you ... before he would talk about himself.”

Coen also reflected on Harris’ tendency to focus on others, noting that he had not previously known Harris was scouted by the Red Sox.

“He never ever, ever told that story to me ... Guys like us, we do human interest stories on people all the time. He never let on about it,” Coen said. “That was a tribute to what a humble person he was.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com. Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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