Cover Story

Fondly referred to as “Mr. Southside Electric,” career  

co-op employee Franklin Delano Harris truly is ...

A Man of the People

 

Story and Photos by Laura Emery, Field Editor


From board members to co-op members, from legislators to fellow employees, says Harris: "I always try to give people the best of me."

It’s been said that there’s no greater gift than the ability to make people smile. And Frank Harris has that gift.

Harris, manager of public & member relations at Crewe-based Southside Electric Cooperative (SEC), is known and loved for his depth of character, his positive energy, and his magnetic personality. He is polished and has a natural comfort when dealing with people — whether it’s communicating with politicians in Washington, D.C., or local folks in attendance at SEC annual meetings.

He is, perhaps, the quintessential communicator, and in this, the Cooperative Month of October, the ideal cooperative personality to profile.

Harris started his 33-year career with SEC on July 1, 1977. He brought with him a double major in sociology and psychology and minors in history and philosophy from Virginia State University and Virginia Commonwealth University. Harris also had six years of service in the Army under his belt, having worked as a medical specialist at the Army Medical Corps (affiliated with the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research). He was also stationed at Fort Jay, N.Y., with the U.S. Army Hospital. 

At SEC, Harris was hired as a consumer-service adviser trainee and worked in that position until 1979, when he became the consumer-service adviser. In 1982, he was promoted to his current position as manager of public & member relations. Rhonda Curtis, manager of customer services & public relations with Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, speaks highly of Harris. “Frank’s actions always have the best interest of the member and his cooperative at heart. He’s a man of character and dependability and always finds a positive side to any situation. Working with someone like Frank is one of those wonderful, unexpected bonuses that materialize over the course of one’s career.” 

Harris takes his position seriously, and approaches the job much like he does his life. “Anybody can sell electricity,” he says, “but not necessarily good service. And here at SEC, we try to provide both at the highest quality. I always try to give people the best of me. I help members understand the cooperative concept, and how cooperatives are different. I ‘sell’ the co-op. You’ve got to believe in what you’re saying, and I believe in the co-op.”


Harris talking to an SEC member during annual meeting.

SEC also places high value on being a good corporate citizen in the areas it serves. As a result, a good portion of Harris’ job ties into the local community. He is serving his fifth term on the Amelia County Board of Supervisors, representing district 5 (currently as chairman), where he resides. He points out that it’s all because the co-op has afforded him the opportunity to do that — to be a part of the community and help  the people SEC serves (more than 54,000 members spread across 18 counties).

It’s All in the Eyes

The eyes say it all. One moment, Harris’ eyes are a relaxed, serious chocolate-brown as he is in his comfort zone discussing matters related to SEC. But the conversation turns from business to personal in nature and the eyes are now a pair of bashful brown pools, an embarrassed smile beginning to spread across his face. “I don’t know why anyone would want to write an article about me,” he says.

The depth of experience in Harris’ personal life, however, might surprise many people. And the impact he unknowingly has on those around him would probably surprise Harris.

Says SEC president and CEO Jeff Edwards, “Frank radiates such a positive attitude and his pleasant demeanor is contagious. You can’t help but smile after talking to Frank.”

Even through tremendous adversity, his buoyant spirit has prevailed. Your quality of life depends on you and nobody else, Harris points out.

Jack Reasor, CEO of Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, says of Harris: “Frank is often called ‘Mr. Southside Electric Co-op’ and, deservingly so, for his dedication to the cooperative and its members. I have a tremendous respect for Frank’s open and friendly demeanor and his positive outlook on life, every day.” 

Man Behind the Laugh


Harris with an SEC employee.

Born in Ford, Va., in 1940 to Walter and Jessie Harris, Frank was one of 15 children. “We were always a very close-knit family, he says. Of his siblings, nine are still living – seven sisters and two brothers. As a result, Harris is proud to report that he has 39 nieces and nephews and 25 great-nieces and -nephews.

His affable personality regularly bubbles over into hearty laughter. You can tell Harris is nearby just by the sound of his laugh.

But life hasn’t always given Harris a reason to laugh. Eleven years ago, he lost the first of his two greatest loves. His daughter, Miriam, died in a single-car accident on her way home from work one evening in 1999. She was only 28 years old.

Says Richard Johnstone, V.P. of the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives (VMDAEC), “She was his only child and the light of his life. She was a good student, very bright and likeable and talented. It was a real tragedy when she died.”

When he speaks of his loss, Harris’ eyes become sad — yet he struggles to maintain his composure. “It hit us pretty hard; took the wind out of our sails. You don’t get over something like that; you just learn to cope. You cherish the memories. The tykster — that’s what I used to call her — collected angels and bells.”

Harris stares into the distance as he revisits those memories. “She was the spittin’ image of her mother. Very well liked. She was definitely a daddy’s girl,” he finally says.

The Harrises set up a scholarship fund in her honor — the Miriam Eileen Harris Memorial Scholarship Fund. “It goes each year to an aspiring senior graduating from high school and going into the humanities or the sciences, which is what she was interested in,” he explains.


In a painfully brief time, Harris lost the two loves of his life. His only child, Miriam, died in a car accident in 1999. His wife of 38 years, Marian, passed away five years later.

Then, five years later, his wife of 38 years, Marian, passed away from a debilitating arthritic condition called ankylosing spondylitis with Crohn’s Disease. It’s a long-term disease that causes inflammation of the joints between the spinal bones, and the joints between the spine and pelvis. It eventually causes the affected spinal bones to join together.

“For Marian, it just kept getting progressively worse,” he explains. Harris had known Marian since he was five years old. The two were wed in 1966. He says, “It was love at first sight with Marian. She had such a beautiful personality, and we had so much in common. She was the love of my life. There’s nobody else out there like her.”

Within a few years’ time, Harris’ life as he knew it had changed entirely. At that point, he could either regress into a tailspin, or pick up the pieces and move forward. “It hit me like a ton of bricks. You can be down, but that doesn’t mean you need to stay down,” he reflects.

The Harris family had always been strong in their faith — and, still, Harris is a very involved member (deacon, trustee, and choir member) of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Ford, Va.

“I am thankful for the time the good Lord had given us, as well as for the quality of life we had as a family,” he says. “I’m not perfect by any means. I haven’t dotted all the i’s or crossed all the t’s — but He understands. I look forward to reuniting with them in heaven one day.” A few seconds later, he adds with a laugh: “I’m not anxious to get there just yet, though. I’ve got a few more mountains to climb!”

In his spare time, Harris enjoys singing. Music was always the lifeblood of his family. “My mother played the piano at a lot of churches, and I was always with her. When I was five years old, my mother set up a gospel group of one of my brothers and two of my sisters and I. We were called ‘The Kinder­garten Four’ and we sang all over Southside, Va. We even had a 15-minute program on WKLV in Blackstone on Sunday mornings.”


Harris with state senator Henry Marsh.

The close-knit siblings eventually grew up, but continued to sing together. The name of the group was later changed to its current name, “The Harmony Gems.” Music also extended into Harris’ immediate family. His wife, a music teacher, would play the keyboard while he and his daughter would harmonize together. “We always enjoyed making music together,” he says.

As Harris softly sings his favorite hymn — It Is Well with My Soul — he gets misty-eyed with emotion. Yet, much like his life, he continues to sing through the tears. “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul.” 

‘Leaps and Bounds’

For 33 years, Harris has been one of the best-known faces of SEC. “I’ve watched SEC grow by leaps and bounds over the years,” he says. Harris is quick to credit the cooperative’s board and management for the cooperative’s success, commending them for their hard work over the years.

“Frank is not only held in high esteem by his fellow electric co-op communicators,” says Jeb Hockman of VMDAEC, “but also by those who work for all types of co-ops throughout the state. He is a true people person who cares about others. When I grow up, I want to be Frank.”

 

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