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Alumni News

Winter 2002

"In appreciation of David Harrison III"

When David Harrison III (College '39, Law ‘41) died on June 8 at his farm, Flowerdew, the University lost a great friend. Few have understood more clearly than he did how learning and living are co-mingled here at the University. Always, in sustaining one, Mr. Harrison affirmed the other.

David's and his late wife Mary's generosity was vast and wise. One cannot acknowledge one spouse without also acknowledging the other, because they agreed on what matters here. Mrs. Harrison died before I knew David. Yet through his and his children's references to her values, her love for life, and her convictions, she was and remains a shaper of every grand Harrison undertaking. And there were many such.

Both Mary and David had long fields of vision and great minds for planning. When David planted dogwoods or rhododendron at Flowerdew, he calculated placements, arrangements, and distances in terms of 50 years, not in terms of a month or five years. When he designed or built a building, he planned for centuries, not for decades or years.

David Harrison brought these habits of mind to his involvements with the University. The great Harrison gifts (for teaching, medical care, student research, and history—especially history viewed close up, in physical evidences of eras before ours—for the Law School and football programs that David loved in the most profound ways) always predicted future returns.

Both Harrisons valued teaching, especially the one-on-one, intensely personal teaching supported by their professorships, scholarships, and fellowships. Before illness slowed him down, David always sought out contacts with students. After Mrs. Harrison died and after much thought and consultation with his family, David expanded his interests. He loved history (his undergraduate major) and especially artifacts (things dug out of the ground, original manuscripts and prints, etc., treasures that Flowerdew itself has produced in abundance). And so the family supported the Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature, and Culture, the above-ground companion of the new Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library now under construction in front of the Alderman building.

David's favorite student memories had to do with history and law, football and St. Anthony's Hall. His support for the Hall was always steady and useful. His support for archaeology grew out of his and Mrs. Harrison's fascination with hard physical evidence of real lives in real places. Harrison Field was his monument to his coaches and teammates in the late 1930s. It was also a symbol of his determination that second-to-none is the only meaningful goal.

David's gifts to the Law School, which he passionately wanted to be second to none, reflected both his affection for classmates and professors and his capacity to plan. (A typical David Harrison inquiry: "Tell me what it takes to be the best.") Clay Hall and the Caplin Pavilion's standing-seam roof and cupola took shape in meetings where David and others, working directly with the architects, planned every aspect of the building's shape and uses and dimensions and even adornment.

David observed the world carefully as he moved through it. His favorite topics (talking over iced tea in his screen house on the edge of the James River, or walking through construction sites, or watching a game from his favorite place in the stadium box he and his family gave to the University) formed a long, fascinating list. His comments about the Army and the Pacific Theater as they were during World War II and about places he and Mrs. Harrison had visited reflected the eye of a keen observer. He spoke most often about his family, and about places in his heart—Hopewell as it was when he was a boy, the Episcopal High School and the University of Virginia in his school and college days, New York City and Long Island before the move to Flowerdew, and then, in the years when he and I were friends, always Flowerdew.

To understand the last years of David's life, one really has to understand Flowerdew, the rolling riverfront farm where he raised crops; tramped through fields and woods with family and friends; designed and built homes, the reconstructed colonial windmill, the museum, a great manor house; became a patron of the archaeologists and students and visitors who came to explore one of the most productive of all sites where native American, European, and African people lived and worked and left the artifacts that make Flowerdew's museum such a treasure house.

David loved this farm for its long past (it was settled from Jamestown in 1617) and for its identity as a gathering place for his family and their guests. He liked to show where the bald eagles nested, where geese fed in winter, where the windmill should have been (and eventually was once again), where relics of all kinds had been found in the soil, and how crops or building projects or landscaping were shaping up.

As an older man, David was thoughtful and quietly funny. He liked to talk about his children's successes and his grandchildren's—four grandchildren have studied here. Showing his great house as it took shape, he focused on where each of his children and their children would sleep, eat, visit, be together as a family.

David was a rare and entirely wonderful man. Now that his life is complete, I am thinking that together his life and Mary Harrison's life teach well the lesson that life's purpose is "to plant trees under which one will never sit." David and Mary Harrison's story is told as well in that old saying as any life's story can be told.