John William Harris ’69

(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the Annual Alumni Luncheon and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)

Distinguished Service Medal Citation

John William Harris ’69

Former North Carolina Governor Cameron Morrison ’22, probably would feel a sense of déjà vu if he were with us today.  As a vigorous proponent of higher education in the state, during his term in the early 1920s he promoted a $20 million bond issue to expand the campuses of Carolina, N.C. State College, and Woman’s College in Greensboro.  Today he would find his grandson walking enthusiastically in his footsteps.

With a high profile in the business community to match his grandfather’s stature in politics, Johnny Harris is one of the blocks in the foundation of the modern city of Charlotte and one of the truest and most forward-thinking friends of the 21st-century University.  He does so with a folksy, down-to-earth informality that makes the boyish “Johnny” the only name he’s ever really needed.

He has held fast to a personal work ethic handed down from his father, who always told him to “put back more than you take out.”  Johnny kept those words in mind when he led the charge to bring college and major league sports venues to Charlotte.  His vision, considered farfetched in the early 1980s, is a good part of the reason that today Charlotte is home to the professional sports teams that have elevated its reputation far beyond our state.

But it’s not only Charlotte that has benefited from Johnny’s efforts to “Put back more than you take out.”  Carolina has benefited as well from his infectious enthusiasm and relentless drive to support her academic mission.  His many supporting roles have included chair of the Educational Foundation, director of the Arts and Sciences Foundation and chair of the University’s Board of Trustees.

It was as a trustee that Harris took on one of his greatest challenges, chairing the search committee that eventually selected Michael Hooker ’69 as the man to aggressively build on UNC’s strengths and push our University forward in academic excellence.  “Johnny handled that very demanding and stressful task with wit, poise and patience,” says UNC law professor and search committee member Elizabeth Gibson ’76 (JD).  “It also was evident throughout the lengthy search process how deeply Johnny loves this University and what high aspirations he has for it.”

It is true that on the day the Board of Governors voted to confirm Hooker as chancellor, Michael encountered Johnny in an elevator and pointed out that they were classmates. The new chancellor didn’t recall that they’d ever met as students to which Johnny replied, “Michael, if you and I had met as students at Carolina, you wouldn’t be here today!”  That should be construed as Johnny’s abiding love for Delta Kappa Epsilon.

During a critical time in the University’s history, Johnny Harris gave visionary leadership, infectious energy, good humor and absolute commitment to the welfare of Carolina, which earned the respect of students, faculty, administrators and fellow trustees.

He is a masterful consensus maker.  He brought a new level of wisdom, perspective and professionalism to the Board of Trustees in fulfilling its responsibility for planning, development and construction on our campus.  It was his leadership that smoothed the difficult process of finding the right location for the Sonja Hanes Stone Black Cultural Center.  He orchestrated a process that drew upon the thinking of the full range of the University’s constituencies.  The campus is both more functional and more attractive as a result of his leadership.

Johnny’s love for Carolina goes back to much younger days when he learned of his family’s support of the University and began to understand the importance of his work being done by people such as Frank Porter Graham ’09 and Bill Friday ’48 (LLB).  The day he learned of his acceptance as a student was one of the happiest of his life.

This is the reflection he sees: “I think about the highs and the lows.  I think about how sure I was that Michael Hooker was the right man at the right time for Chapel Hill and how sure I am now that James Moeser is, also.  Then, having served as a trustee, having really come to understand the inner workings of our University, I’ve realized the institution is so much more than just the people.  It’s the whole concept of education for all the people of North Carolina.”

Johnny has been called head cheerleader of the city of Charlotte, and today the cheers are heard in Chapel Hill and throughout North Carolina.