To those who knew Jim Harrison, no explanation was necessary. To those who did not, no explanation was possible.
Harrison, innovative founder and builder of one of America’s legendary drug chains, passed away late last month at the age of 87. To say that Jimmy lived a rich, fulfilling and meaningful life is to state the obvious. Growing Harco Drug from a single store to a drug chain of over 100 stores, while adding health care and auto facilities to its retailing mix of stores, was arguably the least of his accomplishments. More important, though less well known outside his hometown of Tuscaloosa, Ala., were his numerous community-changing contributions to this Alabama city, home to the University of Alabama and its legendary football dynasty.
As evidence of the esteem and affection with which Tuscaloosa held Jim, both the current and former coaches of the Alabama football team served as honorary pallbearers at his funeral, a high mass at which the former president of the university spoke.
Prior to the funeral service, hundreds of Tuscaloosa residents, all of whom the Harrison family appeared to know, lined up inside the church to meet and greet Harrison’s wife, Peggy, and the members of his family. The two-hour mass that followed was hardly enough time to send Jimmy on his way while applauding the life he led and the accomplishments that attended that life.
And what a life it was. Whether the matter at hand was religious, secular, educational or institutional, Jimmy was the first to respond, with both his physical presence and his money. If the need was for a new religious institution or the refurbishment of a university building, he led the call, urged others to follow, and never stopped to rest until the task was completed. Then, typically, he faded into the background, allowing, even encouraging, others to take the credit for the work he had spearheaded. That was who he was.
Similarly, his role as a leader of the chain drug industry was to lead by example, using his powerful personality, his laudable sense of humor, his self-effacing charm and his considerable power of persuasion to move the industry forward when moving forward was most necessary and least simple.
For two years he led the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, the official industry organization, as its chairman. During that period, the industry consolidated its position atop the retailing community, with Harrison ably representing the industry’s objectives, initiatives and hopes. To have Jimmy leading the association was in effect putting its best foot forward. You just didn’t say no to Jim Harrison.
Unbeknownst to those with no or limited athletic bent, Jimmy was a marvelous athlete. His objective, at all costs, was simply to win. And win he inevitably did. One time Sam Walton, no loser himself, heard that Harrison was an adequate tennis player. So Walton challenged him to a game — and stood by as Jimmy handily defeated him. But that was not the end of the story. Periodically, Walton would phone Harrison. “Hey, Jim,” said the Walmart CEO, “I’m fixing to come through Tuscaloosa on my next trip. How about another tennis game?”
That game never came off. But if it had, those who knew Jim Harrison were pretty sure who would have prevailed. As previously stated, Jimmy Harrison liked to win.
So Jim Harrison is with us no longer. The chain drug industry, the city of Tuscaloosa, the state of Alabama, the United States of America and Jimmy’s legion of friends and admirers have lost someone who will never be replaced. As one of those friends, I still recall, with fondness that borders on adoration, picking up the phone at Racher Press’ offices in New York City and hearing the familiar and welcome voice on the other end: “Pinto. You doin’ good?”