Just before Melvin Harris died five days after Christmas, he lifted his arms and said, “Move over, Moochie,” as though speaking to his beloved wife, who died Nov. 6 last year.
He hadn’t spoken in days but in the end Harris, a longtime Wicomico County band teacher who was deeply admired by his students, reached for Clara Harris, his wife of 61 years, using her nickname.
“His heart was broken into a million pieces because of my mother being gone,” his oldest daughter, Denise Harris-Coe, said, explaining she had dementia and was in an assisted living facility. She died after suddenly going into cardiac arrest.
“My sister’s birthday was on Dec. 29. Just after midnight on the 30th he passed but he made it to my sister’s birthday. He was able to sing Happy Birthday, very low. We watched him take his last breath. He died peacefully. I know he is in heaven,” she said.
Not long after his death, his younger daughter, Belinda Harris, posted on Facebook, “He fought so hard to spend one last Christmas with us and wanted it to be as normal as possible, especially after losing my mom last month. He was my dad but he was also my best friend. When I was in the fifth grade, he made the decision to stop teaching at Bennett and started teaching elementary school band because he said, even though he loved it, he was unable to see his other children grow up. We were always together and those are the times I will cherish the most … I love you, Dad. Give Mom a hug for me,” she wrote.
Former students, sorry to hear of his passing, memorialized Harris as “an amazing teacher and beautiful soul” and a man who “had such a positive influence on so many people.”
So popular was the kind, accepting Mr. Harris, as generations of students called him, that his funeral service will be streamed. A public viewing will be on Friday, at Holloway Funeral Home, from 6 to 8 p.m. and the service will be at noon on Saturday.
At 91 years old, Harris was living alone and being looked after by caretakers, but Harris-Coe returned to Salisbury from her North Carolina home in September to stay with him.
“I came back because I felt something was not right. His health was failing. Dad had a major episode where one night he started vomiting blood. They found out he had bleeding ulcers and they treated him. Then they found out he had blood cancer and they treated that. He was given injections to extend his life. All during this same time he had congestive heart failure, kidney disease, all along, but that night he vomited I took him to the ER. I didn’t think he’d live through that, but he ended up going back to the hospital five more times. God kept him here for a good while. Finally, a month and half before he passed the doctor said, ‘Let’s bring in hospice. You can stay in your home.’ They didn’t give him a time frame, but we kept him comfortable and right after Christmas he died,” Harris-Coe said.
Born on June 17, 1930, in Elbert, W. Va., Harris, affectionately known as The Music Man, received a gift of a little toy trumpet when he was 4 years old and continued to be interested in the instrument. Eventually, he was given an authentic trumpet and encouraged by his father to learn to play. Through the years, that instrument became so dear to him that he asked his family to bury him with it.
“That’s what he wanted, so we’re going to put it in his coffin,” Harris-Coe said.
There were times when she and her sister were growing up that their father entertained them on that trumpet. Years later, when Harris-Coe’s son was a baby, he would play the theme from the TV show starring Barney, the purple dinosaur, as the boy drifted to sleep.
Harris, a strong proponent of integration, was band director at Salisbury High School, at the time attended only by African-American students. When he learned the African-American elementary and junior high schools did not have bands, he started teaching those students, too, Harris-Coe said.
After integration, when Bennett Junior High School opened, he accepted the band director position and spent most of his career there. He also volunteered as assistant band director at Wicomico Senior High School, directed and played in bands at the Salvation Army, his church and with the Salisbury Community Band.
Harris took his high school and junior high school bands to play at parades and football games experiences his students cherished, but Harris taught more than music. There were important lessons about acceptance, of remembering everyone is a member of the human race and nobody should be judged by ethnicity, disability or differences.
Students embraced his message of inclusion and, in 2015, celebrated when Lake Street was renamed for him. It is now Melvin Harris Way.
“My father treated everyone equally. He loved everybody. There was no division anywhere. He developed such a wonderful relationship with all his kids, black, white, Asian. His feeling that we are all part of the human race stuck with everybody,” Harris-Coe said, remembering how much she enjoyed spending time with him.
“My sister and I were Daddy’s girls. He would do anything in the world for us. He took me to Leonards Mill Pond. We did everything together. We went to the beach together, to ball games. We did everything. With my sister, who is 10 years younger than I am, Dad had retired but he continued to work as an assistant band director at Wi-Hi. She went to school there, so she and he spent a lot of time together. He went on band trips with them,” she recalled.
“So many of my dad’s students went on to be band directors or professional musicians. To this day they will share some of the things he taught them,” she said.
“My dad used to say, and it was the truth, music is like therapy. He always said music touches everybody. It makes you happy. It can bring light to your life. And that is so true.”