Gregory Harris who came to New Trier some 15 years ago to teach English and did much more- adding film study to the curriculum, improving the Writing Center as well as being a friend to his colleagues and an adviser to students, formally and informally-has died unexpectedly of natural causes. He was 52 years old.
His colleagues in the English department and beyond were shocked when most of them heard the sad news for the first time at an emergency staff meeting at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday. Some of his colleagues wept openly as they digested the news that their friend had died the day before at his home in Chicago.
The whole school learned of Harris' death from Principal Tim Dohrer who made this announcement during advisory:
"Good morning. This is Dr. Dohrer with some sad news to share with all of you. Yesterday, Mr. Greg Harris, an English teacher, passed away unexpectedly. … Please join me in a moment of silence as we remember this remarkable person."
Students were quick to react to the news of his passing. Casey Wood, a student in his junior AP English class said, "He always put everyone in front of himself. During this stressful junior year he always tried to make us feel comfortable and taught us a new way of thinking about things."
Another student, Andrew Frazier, a junior, said, "He was a father figure to us. He was always so open and easy to talk to. It didn't matter if we were talking about English or not."
English department chair John Cadwell praised Harris' performance as a classroom teacher.
"Kids were lucky to have him as a teacher," Cadwell said.
"He brought so much to the classroom. He infused the classroom with ideas and encouraged inquiry among the students," Cadwell said. "He found his experiences in the classroom rewarding and vitalizing."
Harris shared his knowledge of and passion about teaching with his colleagues. He enjoyed sharing ideas with his fellow teachers, Cadwell said. "People valued their relationship with him," he said.
This year Harris taught Advanced Placement junior English, as he had for many years, as well as senior writers seminar. Cadwell said he visited those classes Tuesday where he heard students praise Harris as a teacher.
He had "sensitivity and grace. He made the kids feel special," Cadwell said.
Dohrer said, "My experience with Greg has been as a colleague, a friend and someone I admire." With tears in his eyes, he said, "New Trier has lost a giant.
"Greg Harris has represented everything that is good about New Trier High School and embodied the motto in every way. In all my years as a teacher, Greg is the best teacher I've ever encountered," Dohrer said.
Services for Greg Harris will be held at 1 p.m. tomorrow in the Winnetka Congregational Church, 725 Pine St., Winnetka. A reception at the church will follow.
Dohrer, who was a longtime English teacher, first met Harris when he and another New Trier teacher visited the writing center at Hinsdale Central High School for which Harris was responsible.
Dohrer credited Harris with improving New Trier's Writing Center. Years ago, it wasn't staffed by students and was not as well used as it is today. Harris made the Writing Center what it is today, Dohrer said.
Rachel Hess, an English teacher, began working in the Writing Center about three years ago. She had known Harris as a colleague before that but became well acquainted with him in the Writing Center.
"While Greg took his position as director of the center (newly renamed the Reading/Writing Center) very seriously, his crazy, contagious laugh easily lightened the mood of any meeting or task.
"A tutor-training session from the beginning of this school year stands out as just one example of the way in which Greg so seamlessly blended his professionalism with his wonderful sense of humor. Due to his natural efficiency and command, Greg got the room of fifty-plus students settled in a matter of seconds and the training session was immediately underway.
"While many might be tempted to deliver their ideas and observations in a terse, businesslike fashion given the situation, doing so was never Greg's style. As quickly as he could quiet a room, he could just as easily get everyone present roaring with laughter," Hess recalled.
''That's exactly what he did that day; instead of asking students, 'How can you best help a tutee with an assignment if there are only 10 minutes left in the class period?" Greg was more apt to quote Madonna and Justin Timberlake by asking, 'If you've only got 4 minutes to save the world, how would you help a struggling writer?'
"To me, his unmatched ability to relate to students, particularly through the pop culture that both he and his students love, is merely one of his many, many gifts that he shared with the New Trier community. Without a doubt, Greg Harris was one of the finest teachers and colleagues to grace the halls of New Trier High School" Hess said.
A few years ago Harris took on some part-time administrative roles. He was the English department assistant and last year was the assistant to the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. And this year he took over as the community resource coordinator. All the while, though, he continued teaching.
He was interested in all aspects of the school, serving on strategic planning committees, and working for the New Trier Education Association. Three years ago he served as president of the association.
English teacher Betsy Arsenault, an English teacher and association president in 2007-2008, said of Harris, "He had so much to offer, with a wonderful laugh and a delightful, sometimes sardonic sense of humor. … He will be missed."
Harris graduated from Indiana University in 1979 with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications and received a master's degree in communications in 1985 from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
He was proud of Indiana University and helped find academically talented students at New Trier to apply for the prestigious Wells Scholarship at IU, which paid for a student's four-year education.
Kimberly Berg, also an English teacher and IU alumna, worked with him on recruiting and selected potential Wells recipients. She recalled how "Harris, Diet Coke in hand, would always open up the Wells scholarship interviews by saying, 'I am a proud Indiana University alumnus.' As he reminisced about his experiences there, his fondness for its music program, the tasty sweets offered at the Union, and the beautiful walks over the bridges and across the streams, he was quick to credit the teachers who built into his life.
"And so the seed was planted that he, too, would soon be building into students' lives. How he delighted in taking his senior writers seminar class down to Elder beach for a class photo or his graduating advisees to dinner before they left for college," Berg said...
"Yet," she said of her colleague of eight years, "his mark doesn't end there. I can bear witness that Mr. Harris' gentle and wise soul also touched mine. Whether it was on train rides into the city talking about an engaging documentary, "Grey Gardens," or in the back English office discussing our interpretations of "Grendel," he generously shared his insights and laughter.
"And as a new teacher, he showered me with his personal teaching folders, ever organized and bearing his own quirky handwriting. How apropos for this film-loving man that I am flooded with a montage of memories about him. But what I will remember most of all: He loved well," Berg said.
He began his teaching career at Hinsdale Central High School in 1980 and served there until 1994. He joined the New Trier faculty in 1994 as an English teacher. Over the years he has taught a variety of English classes, including sophomore 4-level, junior AP and writers and literature which he revised with Dohrer and renamed senior writers seminar.
Harris was also the guiding force in the creation of the film studies classes, beginning the popular course after spending a summer studying film at New York University. After Harris became more involved in administrative matters at school, Carlo Trovato, an English teacher, took over the class.
Trovato said that last year Harris "suggested we work together to create a new course in the English Department-one that he had been thinking about for years: a full year senior film course that would meet the graduation requirement.
"I eagerly said yes for two reasons: first, like Greg, I have taught film courses and have enjoyed them. And second, I saw in Greg a wealth of knowledge-about film, about teaching, about succeeding at New Trier-that I wanted to tap into. I wanted to learn from him.
"But, while I was flattered he wanted to work with me, I was also intimidated by that same intellect I admired, and by the standards he set for himself and others. I just wasn't sure I could keep up with him. What I learned after our first meeting was that while Greg was a colleague, he was also one of the friendliest people I've met," Trovato said.
"He was welcoming and he listened and made me feel like a peer. I learned that his confidence in me elevated my own work to meet his expectations. Working with Greg reminded me that a leader makes the people around him more effective and confident, and Greg was a true leader. His positive attitude, sense of humor and high expectations have inspired students for the last twenty years, and will continue to inspire me in my career as a teacher," Trovato said.
But Greg Harris was a teacher at heart. He enjoyed students, and he was passionate about reading and writing. It showed. His student Casey Wood, talking to the New Trier News on the day he learned of his death, said:
"I wish I could look him in the eye and shake his hand and say thank you for all you did. That wouldn't even capture how much he meant to all of us. But the amazing thing about him was that he never expected anything back."