He defied stereotypes, this football player and Navy Seal who happened to be an artist.
Joshua Harris ’94, created some of his art at Davidson College, some while studying in Prague, France and New York, and some in a barn on the dairy farm near Lexington, North Carolina, where he grew up.
Harris died leading a combat mission on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border in 2008.
His parents have preserved more than 60 pieces of his art. In honor of what would have been his 25th year reunion June 7-9, his classmates and others can find 13 of his paintings on display at the E. Craig Wall Jr. Academic Center.
This story originally ran in November 2018.
The Davidson College football team arrived Friday on Coronado Island, in San Diego Bay, home to a posh, historic hotel and a wildlife refuge alongside Navy jets and perhaps the nation's best known, though secretive, commandos.
The football team was there, in part, to honor one of their own.
The Wildcats play the University of San Diego on Saturday. They would practice Friday afternoon, but Friday morning allowed time to see some of the city. Weeks ago, Head Coach Scott Abell pushed for a meaningful excursion.
In short order, Jane Campbell '87 offered to help. Campbell, a retired Navy Captain and Davidson town commissioner, zeroed in on the Navy's expansive bases in San Diego. They include the training center on Coronado for the SEALs, which stands for Sea, Air and Land teams—the Navy's special operations force. She sought the help of Todd Seniff, another retired Navy Captain with whom she served. Seniff, a former SEAL, has a son, Blanchard '22, who enrolled this fall. Davidson network meets Navy network.
Campbell especially wanted the team to see a small memorial at the Naval Amphibious Base. Inside a sparsely appointed briefing room, befitting SEAL humility, is a wall that honors SEALs who have made the ultimate sacrifice. That memorial includes the name of decorated SEAL Joshua Harris, Davidson College class of 1994.
Campbell was still on active duty in August 2008, when Harris died. She was the public affairs officer at Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) in Bahrain, reading through reports on sailors killed in action when she read about Harris. She said that, once she got past the basic, news release information, "the first thing that came up was that he was a Davidson College alum."
Campbell has organized a group of local alumni and residents who place flags on Veteran's Day at the college's war memorial for each of the 193 alumni honored, including Harris.
Harris's playground as a child was his parents' dairy farm outside Lexington, N.C. He was an adventurous, sharp and athletic child. His dad, Sam, was a doctor, and his mother, Evelyn, an actress, started the Lexington Youth Theater. In high school, Josh was an all-county, all-conference linebacker despite checking in at 5'11" and only 170 pounds. He drew the attention of several small colleges, including Davidson, and sometimes would provoke puzzled looks on football recruiting visits when asked what he wanted to study: art.
Davidson offered a football scholarship, and Harris thrived in the breadth of opportunities. The linebacker who loved Picasso and Pollack. The kid skilled in dairy farm chores who painted, enjoyed Albert Camus and studied in France.
"He was sort of a renaissance man," Sam Harris said. "He could do a little bit of everything."
An injury sidelined Josh Harris freshman year, but while on the team, he met Shaw Smith, professor of art history and humanities and an equipment manager for the football team. Smith later led a semester in France program that included Harris, whose intellect and drive to explore took him all over the country. Harris, with some purposeful exaggeration, would sound like "Davy Crockett in a French class," Smith said. He turned the French word for ham, jambon, pronounced as a nasaly ZHAM-bohn, into "a JAM-bone sandwich."
After graduation, he studied architecture, then followed his twin sister, Kiki, to New York. His family later would talk about both a sensitive side and an instinct to protect. In New York, he met some Navy SEALs, his father said. Before long, he was telling his family that was what he wanted to be.
He emerged as one of the 25 to complete SEAL training. There were 250 when they started. Once when he sent his father a video of a HALO—high altitude, low (parachute) opening—jump, his father asked about all the physically demanding and dangerous situations that Harris faced. He seemed to revel in it all.
"He said, ‘Dad, I can't believe they're paying me to do it,'" Sam Harris said.
Josh Harris ultimately joined the group commonly referred to as SEAL Team 6 and embraced the secrecy of the special operations group whose anti-terrorism missions are classified. His father said that, when asked what to tell family and friends who inquired about his work, he said: "‘Just tell them I'm in research and development.'"
Harris was always the first to volunteer, a fellow SEAL told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, in Norfolk. That was why he was the one who drowned, swept away during a treacherous, nighttime river crossing in Afghanistan.
"He said, ‘Remember, if something happens to me,'" Sam Harris recalled, "'I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing.'"
Sam Harris said a parent's greatest fear after losing a child is that they will be forgotten. After Josh Harris's death, his family discovered more than 100 of his paintings in a barn loft where he would slip off to paint. They were displayed at Davidson County Community College, in New York and at the Navy SEAL Museum. And artwork adorns the family home.
Fellow SEALs later organized a memorial golf tournament that, over seven years, has raised $1.35 million for the families of fallen SEALs.
- June 7, 2019
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