Gill Harris is pictured in a February 2017 file photo taken to promote a performance by Gill Harris and his Big Band Theory, an event he organized annually. Harris died June 1. He was 90. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
June 9, 2018 8:56:16 PM
Call someone obsessive, and you run the risk of sounding critical. Yet, I meant it as the highest compliment for the late Gill Harris, the beloved engineer, musician, raconteur, gourmand, father and husband.
I'd just walked into his visitation Tuesday at Annunciation Catholic Church and was greeted by two of his grandsons, John Harris and Max Tullis.
"You know what I really loved about your grandfather?" I said.
They waited, not sure how to respond.
"He could be obsessive, and he was willing to act on that obsession."
They, doubtless more knowledgeable on the subject than me, waited to see where I was going with it.
"I loved the Christmas decorations," I said. For years Gill put up Christmas lights in front of the family home on Warpath Road -- a complex array of trapezoids, triangles, geometric shapes that could only come from the mind of an engineer.
John spoke up, saying more than once he had driven over from Starkville to help him put those up. There were, of course, precise plans for the assembly of Gill's Christmas tradition. He called it the "hyperboloid paraboloid manger," and it was a regular feature in a Christmas lights column I wrote.
Love big-band music? Most of us would be content to buy LPs, CDs or downloads and sit back and listen. Not Gill. He formed a band and made himself conductor. If that's not enough, he rented the Trotter Convention Center, sold tickets and people came and danced to Gill Harris and his Big Band Theory and had a good time. Part of that good time was watching Gill have a good time.
"When you were talking with him, you had his full attention," a friend said about Gill. "As smart as he was, he wanted to hear what you had to say," she said. "He made you feel important by just giving you his attention."
Too, Gill was generous with that 1,000-watt smile of his. You always felt like he was glad to see you. He was glad to see you.
Gill introduced me, then a novice beekeeper, to the concept of apitherapy, the practice of using the produce of honeybees -- honey, venom, royal jelly and pollen -- for medicinal purposes.
One day after Rotary, about a dozen years ago, Gill asked if I could spare some bees. He wanted to use them to sting his wife, Pat. Naturally, I was bewildered.
Pat had arthritis in her knee and was in a lot of pain, he said. Somewhere Gill had learned about bee-sting therapy as a means of treating arthritis, as well as other ailments.
Pat was a sport about it. "It was fun to try it," she said, adding that it gave her temporary relief. Eventually, Pat resorted to surgery. "He insisted we do the bees first," she said.
Not surprisingly, Gill could be a culinary adventurer.
Beth and I used to go to an obscure Mediterranean restaurant in Birmingham named Ali Baba. It was one of those ethnic restaurants in a nondescript strip center not even the locals know about. On Tuesday nights, they had a belly dancer. We walked into Ali Baba one night and were delighted, but not surprised, to find Gill dining there.
Turns out Gill loved baba ganoush, a dip similar to hummus except made with eggplant. His friend and fellow engineer at Ceco for 15 years, Sam Chabani, kept Gill supplied with the Mediterranean staple.
Gill told Chabani, who is Lebanese, he developed a taste for baba ganoush when he lived and worked in Cleveland, Ohio, where there was a Lebanese restaurant he frequented.
"I used to fix it for him and take it to his office," Chabani said. "He loved it. I swear he could eat it three meals a day. He used to tell me that he could live on it."
About a month before he died, Chabani took his old friend a container of his favorite food. By then Gill had lost his appetite and wasn't eating much.
"He finished the whole thing," Chabani said.
No doubt, he smiled after every bite.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.