Leader Blues

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

TOP STORY >> Friends praise life of Harmon

By RICK KRON
Leader staff writer

“I had the privilege of calling him a friend,” Alderman Butch Davis said after learning that longtime mayor and political patriarch of Sherwood, Bill Harmon, 81, died Friday.

“We were friends from the get-go. As a brand-spanking-new alderman, I could walk into his office and get straight answers. He was a great mayor,” Davis said.

Harmon died at Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock after a long illness.

Harmon, who was a city council member for 10 years and then served a 14-year stint as mayor from 1993 to 2007, opted to try retirement at the end of his last term. But new Mayor Dan Stedman resigned in April 2008, four months into the new term, and the council called Harmon back as the interim mayor. He also threw his trademark Stetson hat into the ring to become mayor again, saying, “I’ve tried retirement; I don’t like it.”

Harmon eventually lost in a July 2008 race against City Clerk-Treasurer Virginia Hillman.

The funeral service will be held at 10:30 a.m. today at First Baptist Church of Sherwood, 701 Country Club Road, with burial to follow at Rest Hills Memorial Park in Sherwood.  

Davis said Harmon was a man full of knowledge. “We had our share of arguments. He won most of them,” Davis laughingly recalled.

“He gave me some advice early in my career that has stuck with me. He told me that as long as I voted my conscience, I was doing the right thing,” Davis said. 

GOOD RIDE

When Harmon announced his retirement in 2006, he said, “I’ve had a very good ride.”

The Wall Street Journal once called Sherwood one of the best hometowns in the country, and Harmon always believed it.

Harmon left the mayor’s office believing the city was “on the bubble of tremendous growth the next 10 years. With commercial development revenues, there’s going to be a boom, and we’ve done it with the lowest tax rate in this part of (the state),” he said.

Longtime Alderman Becki Vassar said, “I thoroughly enjoyed working with him for 24 years. He did a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful job as alderman and mayor.

“He was certainly a champion for this city and loved Sherwood dearly,” Vassar said, adding that Harmon wore two hats, that of mayor and economic developer. “He worked hard to bring businesses like Walmart, Fort Thompson and Gander Mountain into Sherwood,” she said.

When Harmon became mayor, he finished out the last two years of Mayor Jack Evans’ term, receiving 69 percent of the vote in a five-person race. Evans had died in office.

After that special election, Harmon was elected to four consecutive four-year terms, putting his insurance business on a back burner.

Former Alderman Tom Brooks said Harmon was “a visionary if there ever was one.”
Brooks added, “He was a dear friend and I will miss him for the rest of my life.”

TWO THINGS

“I wanted two things when I got elected,” Harmon said, “activities for the young and to provide for the elderly.”

With his support, the town’s baseball, softball and soccer parks have blossomed to prominence.

“Our ball fields are unreal,” he said. “We’ve built two T-ball fields with shade for the grandparents.”

The softball fields have hosted large tournaments, one of which attracted teams from 28 states. Even the Lady Razorbacks play at least one league game a season at the Sherwood sports complex.

The town has an active senior citizens center named for Jack Evans and the new Bill Harmon Recreation Center with a swimming pool, ball courts, exercise machines and meeting rooms used not only by children and seniors, but the entire spectrum of city residents.

Under Harmon’s tutelage, the city bought Sherwood Forest, which hosts meetings, workshops and events like the holiday trail of lights, Sherwood Fest and the Fourth of July activities.

“It’s hard to believe that one man could accomplish as much as Bill did,” said Brooks.

Of the many accomplishments Harmon helped foster in Sherwood, he was most proud of founding COPS (Children on Patrol in Sherwood), a program he hoped would help the city, instill values in young people and guide some of them into Sherwood’s police force.

Harmon said 200-300 youngsters had been involved, and each summer the city sends 50 to 75 of them to camp.

He was also proud of the Mayor’s Youth Council, whose members attended city council meetings, engaged in fund-raising activities and attended the Municipal League Convention in Washington.

Alderman Steve Fender said Harmon “found his niche” when he became mayor.

“One of his greatest assets was his communication skills. He kept us informed and he was easy to work with,” Fender said.

Fender said Harmon valued the opinions of others. “I appreciated that,” the alderman said.

At his time of retirement, Harmon said other than a bad knee, he was in good health and looked forward to golfing, hunting, spending more time with his family and getting more involved in his insurance business.

Harmon joined the Navy at age 17 after convincing his parents to sign a waiver for him, and served on a tanker in the South Pacific during the Second World War.

After being honorably discharged from the Navy following the war, Harmon returned to Arkansas to attend Arkansas State College in Jonesboro where he was a member of Pi Kappa Alpha, and afterward farmed in eastern Arkansas for several years before entering the insurance business.

He then spent 41 years in the life and health insurance industry working at various levels and eventually opening his own insurance agency, Bill Harmon and Associates Inc. in 1979.

Harmon had been a member of First Baptist Church of Sherwood since 1966, and served as a Sunday school teacher there for many years. He was a 32nd Degree Mason with dual membership in Sylvan Hills Lodge in Sherwood and Red Gum Lodge in Hughes, and a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

AWARD WINNER

He was a lifetime member of the Arkansas Municipal League and received the Denver Gentry Distinguished Citizen Award in 2008 for his outstanding work and dedication to his community.

His parents, Henry and Ailene Harmon; his brother, Charles Harmon and his sister, Edith McConnell, preceded him in death.

He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Marvelle S. Harmon; three sons and one daughter, Billy J. Harmon Jr. and his wife Sue of Sherwood, Hank Harmon and his wife Diane of Carrollton, Texas, and Lampe, Mo., Alderman Charlie Harmon and his wife Monica of Sherwood, and Mary L. Harmon of New York. He also had 11 grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren, and a host of nieces and nephews.

Memorials may be made to First Baptist Church of Sherwood, or Union Rescue Mission.

(Leader senior staff writer John Hofheimer contributed to this article.)