An estimated 500 people, including many within the Wesleyan community, came together last month to celebrate the life of David Lynn Harris, Jr. ’08, who died in a hiking accident in Oregon last July. Both at the service and in interviews with The Argus, family and friends shared memories and offered reflections about Harris, whom they praised for his boundless curiosity, social awareness and the unwavering empathy he expressed to everyone he knew.
“Dave was able to establish a genuine connection with a number of different people,” said friend Mike Berger ’08 in an interview. “The depth of Dave’s personhood and his absolute caring and sincerity led him to touch alot of people in a very deep way.”
The August 14 service, held at the New York Culture Center in Manhattan, took place three weeks after Harris’s body was found on Neahkahnie Mountain, along the Oregon Coast, on July 24. According to an August 10 article in The Oregonian, a five-foot long and one-foot wide tree branch was found near Harris’s body. An autopsy later showed that Harris died of head injuries most likely caused by the falling branch.
Harris had moved to Portland after graduating in May, briefly taking a job as a call receiver for the American Automobile Association (AAA) before leaving what he found to be unsatisfying work. A nature-lover since youth, he decided to backpack both on and around the Neahkahnie. Those close to him characterized the trip as a time of both external exploration and inward reflection.
Many admitted that the sudden and seemingly random nature of Harris’s death added another layer of confusion and anger to their grieving process. Fellow members of the class of 2008, in particular, emphasized the disorienting effect of the tragedy, which some said was the first time a friend their age had passed away.
“You hear about things like this, but this is the first time in my life I’ve experienced it, and it has felt so useless and unfair,” said friend Max Rose ’08 in an interview. “He deserved to live a long and prosperous life. He never hurt a soul.”
Jean Pockrus ’08, a friend, regretfully admitted in an interview that ze was so emotionally overwhelmed by Harris’s death that ze could not bring hirself to attend the service. Pockrus added that Harris’s devotion to working towards social justice and equality, particularly for children, gave his passing a tragic air of unfulfilled promise.
“That’s why his death is devastating, because he would have done so many good things,” ze said. “He was already accomplished in so many ways.”
Although somber thoughts and emotions inevitably shaded individual accounts of Harris’s death, those who knew him ultimately emphasized his exemplary personal qualities and accomplishments, many of which were notable from an early age.
Friends and educators from both of the Hunter College Campus Schools in Manhattan, which Harris attended and graduated from in 2004, noted Harris’s intellectual inquisitiveness and musical prowess on the bass, his instrument of choice. He developed his playing skills through private lessons and concert performances in connection with the Music Advancement Program within Juilliard. A passion for the outdoors was also fostered through involvement with the Boy Scouts.
Harris’s extracurricular achievements were often discussed in relation to his ever-continuing personal development. Daniel Scavalone, who quickly became friends with Harris after they met in 11th grade history class, noted Harris’s academic and musical achievements in high school, as well as his burgeoning sense of social responsibility and community awareness.
“He helped me realize that you don’t judge your country by its wealth and prestige, but by how they treat its poor,” Scavalone said at the service.
Such concerns would continue to remain on Harris’s mind when he came to the University. He majored in government, and continued to play the bass, but his most well-known work outside the classroom may have been his involvement with the Traverse Square Afterschool Program.
His involvement lasted for almost his entire four years at the University, and was even integrated into his final moments at the University. Harris, Berger, Alex Diamond ’08 and Zac Meyer ’08 organized a boycott of the mandatory purchasing of graduation gowns. Over 50 graduates participated, and the $1,800 in total saved funds was donated to the program instead. The shirt Harris chose to wear speaks to both his societal engagement and love of music, reading: “Make Hip-Hop, Not War.”
Harris introduced Berger to the program during second semester of their sophomore year, and Berger stayed with the program until the day he graduated. He reminisced about how Harris would bring in comic books to give to the children, and speculated about why “the Center,” as members affectionately refer to the program’s base of operations within the Traverse Square housing units, first intrigued Harris.
“I think Dave was drawn to Traverse Square by the energy that radiates from the Center, as we call it,” Berger said. “It comes from the community of Traverse Square through the children. We, the people who work at Traverse Square, feed off of that.”
More than any individual accomplishment, however, friends recalled Harris’s calm, warm personality and seemingly limitless interest in the world and, more specifically, the people around him. Lauren Goldman ’08, a friend, commented in an interview on the range of topics she and Harris had discussed since first meeting in the Butterfields freshman year: from gender mores in India to advice on personal dilemmas. No matter how often they talked, Goldman added, there still always seemed to be something else to discuss.
“He had so much to say,” Goldman said. “You could say whatever you wanted to say to him. We always had so much to catch up on, because when you feel as if you can talk to someone about anything, you do have a lot to catch up on.”
Farrell Evans, who had been Harris’s mentor within a program connected to “Sports Illustrated” and who spoke at the service, similarly marveled at David’s ability to speak comfortably with people from all walks of life, a trait many commented upon.
“David could talk to a Harlem wino and a sixth generation Harvard investment banker,” Evans said with a laugh.
During the first semester of his senior year, Harris pursued a growing interest in Buddhism and eastern philosophy by studying abroad in India. He spent time in Bodhgaya, the site where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. Friends say the semester provided Harris with the next step along a journey that many define as spiritual in nature.
“It may sound corny, because we don’t have the words to describe what David was doing,” Pockrus said. “He didn’t go abroad to India to consume stereotypes about Indian culture. He went because it was the birthplace of a philosophy that was very dear to him and that he was very intellectually engaged by.”
Rose added that he saw a distinct shift within Harris, reflective of a continuing personal exploration.
“Especially when he came back from India, you can see in his eyes that he was at peace with the world,” Rose said. “He was someone who was constantly searching. He was searching for his destiny.”
Buddhist tradition played a critical role in the memorial ceremony itself. The Culture Center is run by Soka Gakkai International—USA (SGI-USA), an organization based in the teachings of Nichiren Buddhism. During the ceremony, individuals were invited to approach the front of the room and place a pinch of incense in a burner—an expression of gratitude for the dead in Nichiren Buddhist tradition. (The main gathering space housed 300 people, while 200 additional individuals watched the ceremony on simulcast video in an accompanying room.)
Guests were also asked to participate in the rhythmic chanting of the invocation “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,” the Japanese translation of the title of the “Lotus Sutra,” a religious text believed by followers of Nichiren Buddhism to contain the ultimate truth of Buddhism.
Despite the personal nature of his time in India, Harris also managed to share his experiences with those he cared about in a multitude of ways. Justin Michael Douglas ’08, a friend, recalled in an interview that Harris gave him a red scroll with a drawing of Ganesha, a Hindu deity said to be
a giver of wealth.
“He knew I was an economics major and was all about wealth,” Douglas said with a laugh. “I sat under it during phone interviews for jobs.”
Goldman remembered receiving mass e-mails from Harris in India, sharing his adventures and discoveries with those back home.
“He had experiences with monks, and he wrote about bicycling through rice paddies and meeting all these people,” Goldman said. “He just had an incredible love for where he was: the sights and sounds and tastes of new things he was experiencing.”
Even those who did not know Harris particularly well, however, sensed his genuine thirst for emotional and spiritual progression. Adjunct Associate Professor of Music Jay Hoggard admitted at the service that, though he was on the program to speak, he did not know Harris particularly well.
However, he recalled a conversation he had with Harris right before commencement last May, which he reiterated in an interview. Hoggard ruefully chuckled as he reflected on his initial reaction to Harris’s ambitious views on the future.
“The first question he asked me was, ’Mr. Hoggard, how can I focus music to be a positive spiritual influence in the universe?’” Hoggard said. “And my first thought was, ’What are you going to do when you graduate? Do you have a job?’”
Hoggard admired Harris’s forthright nature and desire to expand his talent on an almost cosmic sense.
“I thought that was a pretty amazing conversation to have with a young fellow who was ready to jump out there,” Hoggard said. “It wasn’t a standard conversation about getting the job on Wall Street and making the big bucks.”
This constant striving for meaningful connection and serious personal introspection points to the legacy Harris has left amongst those closest to him. It was perhaps all too fitting, then, that David once posted a single quote within his on-campus living space for all to see.
It read simply: “Today I will realize my highest truth.”