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G.K. Harris dies at 91

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Rev. George Kennard Harris III passed away at his home on Friday, Jan. 11 at the age of 91. A World War II veteran, civil rights leader and father of four, Harris, more commonly known as G.K. Harris, served the Dyersburg community as the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church from 1952-1994. In addition, Harris was also the pastor of Greenleaf Presbyterian Church in Tipton during the same time and continued to serve that community in a volunteer capacity after his retirement.

The State Gazette did a Sunday profile on Harris in its Nov. 5, 2000 issue. Here is a look back at Harris' life.

Harris was born in Philadelphia in 1921 to George K. Harris Jr. and Inez Olivia Stratton Harris. He served in an engineering battalion in the U.S. Army from 1942-1945. Harris served mainly in the European campaign, landing in France on June 12, 1944, six days after D-Day. Harris was awarded four bronze stars during the course of his service before he was discharged in late 1945 after the atomic bomb was dropped in Japan.

At the age of 31, Harris received his Bachelor of Divinity degree from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. The young, single Harris was looking to embark on a life of missionary work and interviewed for a missionary position in Alaska at the general headquarters of the Presbyterian Church USA located in New York City. Unfortunately due to previous problems with single ministers in the missionary field, Harris was turned down for the assignment, but was offered to apply for a pastor position in a small community in northwest Tennessee called Dyersburg.

"I immediately felt at home (upon his arrival in Dyersburg)," said Harris in his 2000 interview. "The people here were very gracious to me and more than 90 percent of the members of Grace Presbyterian Church voted that they wanted me as their pastor."

Harris was encouraged to stay for only two or three years but he was convicted that Dyersburg was where God called him to serve. In late 1952, he began dating Sarah Alice Winston who told Harris many times that she fell in love with him the day he moved to Dyersburg. The couple married in 1957, after nearly five years of dating and went on to have four children: Stephanie, Elizabeth, Tabitha and George IV.

The Harrises lived in Dyersburg through the tumultuous civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. He was noted by many in the community to be one of two pastors (Sam Boney, rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church at the time, being the other) that kept the community together during difficult times.

"Brother Harris is an outstanding scholar of scripture, and he isn't afraid to become involved in any battle that needs to be fought or to rock any boat that needs to be rocked," said the Rev. Robert Miller in 2000, who considered Harris a mentor. "I know that anything I've been able to accomplish in multiracial relations has been because I've been standing on his shoulders."

"His compassion, love of people and love of God was tremendous," said his oldest daughter Stephanie Poteat by phone. "He would most want to be remembered for his love for the Lord."

Harris was preceded in death by his wife, who passed away in 1999. He is survived by his four children: Poteat, a church music director in Washington, D.C.; Elizabeth Ann McCay, a professor at ITT Technical Institute in Memphis; Tabitha Althea Horton, an accounting manager at Vanderbilt University; and George K. Harris IV, a professor at Austin Peay State University. Harris also has four grandchildren.

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