From The Archives: Willie

William Thomas Goebel Harris, my father’s father, was born 120 years ago today. He’s the one grandparent I never knew, dying about 27 months before I was born. My dad idolized him, which is probably why I received his first name.

My grandmother called him Willie; my assumption is that many other folks did the same. However, his stationery and signature always read “Wm. Harris.” As a tribute, sometime in my mid-20s I started somewhat regularly signing my name that way. A few of my grad school friends noticed and began calling me WM (pronouncing both letters–I didn’t mind at all).

He attended Transylvania from 1916-18. It would be several years before he would go back to school to finish his Bachelor’s degree and even more before he got a Master’s (in math and physics), both from UK. He married Mary Elizabeth Brown in 1920; they waited 11 years for their only child to come along. He was a lifelong educator and farmer and an accomplished surveyor. In the mid 1930s, he served as superintendent of Gallatin County Schools, being one of the leading forces of its consolidation.   In 1938, he moved to the Kenton County system, where he was at various times elementary school principal and high school teacher. Dad taught math alongside him at Dixie Heights High School during the 1957-58 academic year. Immediately afterward, he returned to Gallatin County for another turn as superintendent, where he stayed until his death at the age of 64.

Willie (I mean no disrespect, but I never had a grandparental moniker for him–I’m guessing it would have been Grandpa) was a hard worker, probably too hard. He wasn’t very tall–maybe 5’ 6’’–but he had a wiry strength. He was diabetic, though, and didn’t watch his diet. I’ve been told he’d eat whatever he wanted and then take a double dose of insulin in an attempt to make up for it. My father and his mother were on a trip out west in late summer 61 when he suffered a heart attack. It wasn’t initially fatal; they raced back to be with him at the hospital. Mom and Dad had recently started dating.   I imagine they both knew their relationship was pretty serious by this point, but Mom hadn’t yet been introduced to my grandfather. Such a meeting was not to be. He didn’t want to first see her as he was attempting to recover, and he passed away on November 10.

It’s certainly possible I inherited my aptitude for math from him–my dad told me many times as I was going through school how proud my grandfather would have been of me. And I think of him often today, since my own son demonstrates talent and real interest in both math and physics. It certainly makes me wish all the more that my grandfather and I could have had some years together.


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