Former Monterey superintendent’s legacy of leadership and kindness

James Harrison drank his coffee blazing hot, he ate his oysters on the half shell and he never met a stranger.

You could often spot his “famous smile and crinkly eyes” at a few regular places around Monterey County according to friends and family.

Whether he was playing golf, catching up with friends over breakfast, sitting in church making funny faces at the kid next to him or tending to his infamous tomatoes and roses, wherever you found him – he likely wasn’t alone.

After leading Monterey Peninsula Unified School District as superintendent for 17 years, Harrison could rarely go anywhere without bumping into someone he knew. On the rare occasion he’d come across someone he didn’t know, his question of “where did you go to school?” quickly broke the ice.

“He just cherished people and everyone came to him with equal value,” said Harrison’s daughter, Gail White. “He spent so much time nurturing relationships and making sure that he checked in on people.”

Harrison died June 4. He was 92 and left a legacy of model leadership, unyielding kindness and a love for education and the community according to colleagues, friends and family.

Missouri roots

After briefly teaching social studies and physical education at St. Agnes High School in Springfield, Missouri where he was born, Harrison became the curriculum coordinator for Inglewood Unified School District in 1958 – the place where he would kick-start his career in administration and meet his wife, Carol.

James Harrison's daughter, Beth Wodecki, and wife, Carol Harrison, stand in Harrisons' beloved garden. Harrison was known for his infamous tomatoes and roses (Molly Gibbs - Monterey Herald).
James Harrison’s daughter, Beth Wodecki, and wife, Carol Harrison, stand in Harrisons’ beloved garden. Harrison was known for his infamous tomatoes and roses (Molly Gibbs – Monterey Herald).

Teachers within the district often referred to administrators from the district office as “mucky ducks,” Carol explained. When administrators stopped by to visit and inspect the schools, teachers would pass around a red pencil to one another as a warning.

“All of a sudden, I was getting this mucky duck in my classroom every week, and I really thought I was going to be fired,” she said, laughing. “I didn’t know what was going on. I sent this red pencil around and I finally found out that I was the only one getting (it).”

They were married that June and Carol’s first-grade class attended the wedding, foreshadowing a life that began and ended with education.

From that point on, Harrison was a mucky duck for life. He and Carol left Inglewood and moved to Monterey, where their three daughters – Gail, Beth and Lynn – attended school. Harrison served as associate superintendent for Monterey Peninsula Unified School District for a few years before taking on the role of superintendent in 1973. And for nearly two decades, Harrison led the district through both peaceful and turbulent times.

Accomplishments

Some of his many accomplishments included establishing an early education kindergarten program and a model technology program with a state-funded grant for computer equipment and programs. Under his leadership, the district hired a librarian, a science and music teacher and language arts teachers in each elementary school, developed a girls’ athletics program, and increased the number of women and minorities in administrative posts.

Despite the numerous state and national awards he and the district won, his greatest accomplishment was perhaps creating a culture where innovation was encouraged, community was emphasized and individuality was cherished according to colleagues.

“His leadership wasn’t grabbing you by the neck and dragging you forward,” said Martin Puentes, a former employee of the district for over 20 years. “He was always beside you, believing in you, encouraging you, allowing you to try.”

That leadership enabled him to navigate through some of the district’s most challenging times, most notably – the era of desegregation.

Peter Krasa, a former principal in the district for nearly 30 years, said that when some staff members in the district expressed concern over merging the schools, Harrison replied, “if you respect all people as people and interact accordingly, you will have absolutely no trouble with desegregation. Rather, you will experience great joy.”

“How a person behaved is all Dr. Jim cared about,” Krasa said. “If one behaved in a kind, helpful, respectful and honest manner … then he personally acknowledged, appreciated and reinforced those universally important attributes. If someone didn’t reflect those values, Dr. Jim would teach them, primarily by living them.”

Harrison also led the district through one of its toughest years in 1982, when $4 million was cut from the budget, five schools were closed and more than 75 teachers were laid off.

“We never had one complaint,” said Richard Paguillo, a board member during that time. “The teacher’s association understood that the decisions made were necessary. They didn’t fight it at all. And that was very unique and very huge.”

Caring about people

Paguillo admitted he and Harrison didn’t get off to a great start. But when an elementary school in the district caught fire one night in the early 80s, Paguillo saw firsthand how deeply Harrison cared for the district and the people in it.

“There were big tears coming out of Jim’s eyes and he told me he was thinking about all the kids that were going to be disrupted because he was going to have to put them in other schools,” Paguillo recalled. “He wasn’t concerned about the building so much as about the teachers and students.”

Former district employees and administrators, from left to right: Hank Hutchins, James Harrison, Linda Bassett, Billy DeBerry, Neil Fern (Courtesy of Carol Harrison).
Former district employees and administrators, from left to right: Hank Hutchins, James Harrison, Linda Bassett, Billy DeBerry, Neil Fern (Courtesy of Carol Harrison).

“It was much more than just a job,” said his daughter, Beth Wodecki. “It really was a passion of making connections and caring for people, especially people that might not necessarily get the attention.”

Harrison had a habit of seeking out the troublemaker in the classroom, she said.

“He loved the kid that was misbehaving. I think because he was like that,” Wodecki said. “(He believed that) every child had something special about them and it was our job to not just find that, but to bring it out … there was never a kid that wasn’t worth it.”

“He didn’t give up on students. He always felt that there was some way to save every child,” agreed Wayne Downey, the district’s former director of student discipline.

Retirement

In late August 1990, Harrison announced his decision to retire, stating the time was right for a “changing of the guard.” At the time, the district had nearly 15,000 students and a budget of $71 million. The board joked they weren’t going to accept his retirement.

“I think that navigating the political waters for that long and being able to retire in a way where you retire on your own terms and people view you in a positive light is basically unheard of now,” said the district’s current superintendent, PK Diffenbaugh. “He was one who really had a way that people always remembered him so fondly. He really had the respect of former students, former parents, former teachers.”

James Harrison's daughter, Beth Wodecki, and wife, Carol Harrison, stand in Harrisons' beloved garden. Harrison was known for his infamous tomatoes and roses (Molly Gibbs - Monterey Herald).
James Harrison’s daughter, Beth Wodecki, and wife, Carol Harrison, stand in Harrisons’ beloved garden. Harrison was known for his infamous tomatoes and roses (Molly Gibbs – Monterey Herald).

Harrison was a devout man who believed in seeing the good in everyone, regardless of their background or identity. Common words used to describe Harrison are “kind,” “rare” and “supportive.” He was a cheerleader for those around him, and that kindness was returned later in life as his sight and health began to fail say friends and family.

Paguillo drove Harrison to various appointments and church every Sunday. When he became too ill to attend, Paguillo brought him communion to take at home. His friend and former colleague, Robert DeWeese and other golfing buddies drove him around the golf course and helped him with his swing when he couldn’t see anymore. Carol sat with him at the dinner table and dialed phone numbers so he could continue to check in on his friends and acquaintances and their families.

“To be continued,” is what Harrison’s group of former colleagues, employees and friends would call out to each other as they filed out of whichever restaurant, golf course, or breakfast nook they inhabited to reminisce and catch up.

He seemed to know every teacher, every assistant, every custodian and every bus driver in his district, and he frequently asked about their families.

“He definitely saw people and heard people,” Wodecki said. “When he was talking to you, you were the most important person on the planet.”

A memorial mass will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at San Carlos Cathedral in Monterey, California. In lieu of flowers, Harrison’s family is asking well-wishers to donate to the various student resource centers within the district to support students in need.

One of Harrison's infamous roses in his garden (Molly Gibbs - Monterey Herald).
One of Harrison’s infamous roses in his garden (Molly Gibbs – Monterey Herald).

Contributed by local news sources

Next Post

Clipboard: Aldrete sets career high for homers at Eugene

Not only has Monterey High grad Carter Aldrete switched positions this year, but a tweak in his swing has seen the first baseman hit for power and average this summer for the Eugene Emeralds. Selected in the 15th round in 2019 by the San Francisco Giants, Aldrete has hit a […]