Residents of the Elkin area are mourning the loss of community leader and former Elkin mayor Dr. Jim Harrell Sr. following his death Monday afternoon.
A graduate of Elkin High School, Harrell, who was 94, joined the U.S. Navy Dental Corps serving until 1946 rejoining the corps during the Korean War. After his military service, Harrell continued to serve the community as Elkin commissioner and three terms as Elkin mayor during which time improvements were made such as a new water plant, an airport, a regional library, a sewer plant, fire station, two bridges and the hospital.
“The life of Jim Harrell brought many accomplishments to Elkin, North Carolina, and even the nation in the dental community, but that is nothing when I think of the humility he followed when he served,” said former Elkin mayor, Tom Gwyn. “He never took credit for anything. I believe that spirit will prevail even after he is gone.”
Although a part of local politics, it was perhaps his nearly 70 years as an Elkin dentist that made him so familiar to so many residents. In spite of fears and anxiety often caused by visits to the dentist, Harrell was known for being congenial and jovial.
On his last day as a dentist, patient Rebecca Boles, who had worked for the practice from 1947-50, told of an incident that happened shortly after she became engaged. “I was helping him at the chair one day and the autoclave that cleans the equipment was nearby,” said Boles, who claimed it was wonderful to work with Harrell. “I reached to get the instruments and knocked the tray. They all fell to the floor, you’ve never heard such a clatter. Dr. Jim said to the patient, ‘Well, Rebecca’s dropped the diamond out of her ring.’ I was so embarrassed.”
At his side for 17 years as a dental assistant was Harrell’s wife, Isabel, who passed in 2015 after 70 years of marriage. “She took such good care of things,” said a wistful Harrell during an interview last month. “We always supported one another. That’s important for a good marriage.”
Harrell was so intent upon helping others that even in casual conversation he tried to share knowledge that he hoped would make their lives easier.
As one of the first members of the Elkin Boy Scout troop in 1920, which was started by his father, the lessons Harrell learned in Scouts were instrumental in his personal and professional success. Along with Fred Norman, Harrell received the first Good Scout Awards to ever be presented in the Laurel District in May of 2016. “Scouting has been a guiding force in my life, the scout oath and scout laws,” said Harrell during his acceptance speech.
“The Scouts appreciate everything Dr. Harrell has done through the years for Scouting. It’s people like him who make sure Scouting stays strong for the people of our community,” said Bob Watkins, district commissioner for the Laurel District of the Boy Scouts of America. “I thought the world of Dr. Harrell.”
Harrell was delighted in the community he lived and died in often recounting lessons on the history of Elkin and its residents as well as the state, or sharing stories of the many individuals who were fortunate to have spent time in his company. Having made it a point to ask questions of his listeners, Harrell was full of information on many subjects, his most favorite seeming to be people, particularly his family.
Harrell once said, “I am so proud of my four wonderful children and their spouses, my nine grandchildren and my 11 great-grandchildren,” but he was just as proud of his father and grandfather, who were instrumental in bringing Hugh Chatham Memorial Hospital and its high quality standards to Elkin. Harrell was fond of explaining the progression of the hospital, knowing important dates even when he didn’t know how to turn on the internet.
It is at the Hugh Chatham Memorial Hospital where a patient tower was named in honor of Harrell and his late wife. “Our hospital trustees and foundation board wanted to commemorate Dr. and Mrs. Harrell for their countless contributions to Hugh Chatham Memorial Hospital over the years,” said Paul Hammes, CEO of HCMH, at the time of the naming.
Upon Harrell’s death, Hammes stated, “Dr. Harrell brought a pioneering vision and spirit to our hospital and foundation, serving as foundation chairman for 18 years from its inception in 1997. Moreover, in every word and deed Dr. Harrell epitomized all that is good in healthcare and community, encouraging each of us to dream big and to serve others without reservation or judgment. His remarkable presence and legacy will positively impact our hospital and community for years to come.”
Harrell’s reach stretched beyond the town of Elkin. Harrell also served as president of the University of North Carolina General Alumni Association, where he also was able to influence change. On a recent visit, current President Douglas Dibbert revealed that Harrell was the reason Winter Graduation at UNC is more than a small gathering in a dining hall. “Jim came to one of our board meetings and he was hot. He wanted to know why on the eve of our bicentennial would we not want these students to have the climactic experience that the students had in May.” Students now have the benefit of the formality of graduation ceremonies whether they graduate in May or December.
It was during the dedication of the patient tower at HCMH that Harrell said, “I love the town of Elkin which has been my home for 94 years. I have enjoyed and appreciated all the projects and challenges that have been presented to me and do not regret a single one.”
Funeral arrangements for Harrell can be found inside Wednesday’s edition.
Beanie Taylor can be reached at 336-258-4058 or on Twitter @TBeanieTaylor.