Benton Neal Harris Jr., 76, housing, jobs advocate for poor

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Benton Neal Harris Jr., a retired plastics industry executive who founded organizations that built housing for the poor and found jobs for the unemployed, died of kidney failure Saturday at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The North Roland Park resident was 76.

In 1946, Mr. Harris and several friends established the Hedwin Corp., manufacturer of plastic products, and later founded Gulf States Plastics Corp., from which he retired in 1971 as president of the plastics division.

Mr. Harris became business manager of Dag Hammarskjold College in Columbia, which was founded in 1972. After the college closed in 1974 because of financial problems, he worked for the nondenominational Church of the Savior in Washington, which, through Jubilee Washington, was rehabilitating two apartment houses for the poor in the Adams-Morgan section.

Several years earlier, Mr. Harris and his wife had studied with the church's leader, the Rev. N. Gordon Cosby, who preached about the lasting value of social commitment.

"He was a very amazing person who gave his life in a very crucial way," Mr. Cosby said of Mr. Harris. "He had a deep hunger for God and that hunger was evident in his heart and spirit, and he expressed his concern for the poor and what society would identify as the marginalized in all of the tasks he undertook."

Mr. Harris' work gained the attention of the Roman Catholic order of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in East Baltimore, which sought his help in saving 30 needy families from being evicted from several houses in Butchers Hill. He founded the Concerned Citizens of Butchers Hill and led fund-raising efforts that prevented the houses from being sold to speculators.

In 1980, Mr. Harris established Jubilee Baltimore Inc., a nonprofit developer of housing for low- and moderate-income families in the Butchers Hill and Upper Fells Point areas of East Baltimore. A few years later, he founded Jubilee Jobs, a placement service for the unemployed.

"First and foremost, he was an extraordinary person," said Charles B. Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore, who described Mr. Harris as "not garrulous, a quiet and urbane man."

"At the age of 60, Neal realized that his business skills were transferable and he applied them to working with the poor in seeking housing for them," Mr. Duff said. "He built housing for 155 families and was at work on housing for another 150 families when he died. He also led us into the area of finding jobs for the unemployed and to that end created Jubilee Jobs, which has found employment for 1,900 people."

He said Mr. Harris often reminded the staff that a person had two basic needs: a decent place to live and a job.

"He used to say, 'If you don't have these two things, you're going to be dependent,' " Mr. Duff said.

Mr. Harris was a religious man who detested elitism. While a student at Princeton University in the late 1930s, where he was president of the Cap and Gown campus club, he insisted that no student be without the opportunity to join a club. The university's Intercollegiate Council concurred and promulgated the change.

He was born in Atlanta and moved to Baltimore as a child. He graduated from Gilman School in 1937 and from Princeton in 1941.

In 1945, after serving with the Army Air Forces during World War II, he married the former Mary Tomlin of Statesville, N.C., and the couple settled in Baltimore, where they became members of Brown Memorial Park Avenue United Presbyterian Church, then under the direction of the Rev. Guthrie Speers.

"As young people, Dr. Speers involved us in social issues that led to the breaking down of color barriers and wanted us to think of justice and what we could do personally to help. It was an awakening," said Mrs. Harris, known as Normie, who as a young girl growing up in the South during the 1930s openly questioned segregation.

During the early 1960s, Mr. Harris began a lasting friendship with James Rouse, who at that time was starting to develop Columbia. Mr. Harris helped found one of Columbia's first churches, known as the Kittamaqundi Community. For the past 20 years, he was a member of St. John Episcopal Church in Worthington Valley.

A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. today at Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St.

Other survivors include two sons, B. Neal Harris III of Newton, Mass., and Peter T. Harris of Charlotte, N.C.; three daughters, Mallory Harris Kubicek of Ellicott City and Mary Katherine Harris and Margaret Moore Harris, both of New York; a niece, Margot Clark Wright of Santa Fe, N.M.; and six grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be made to Jubilee Baltimore, 2000 E. Lombard St., Baltimore 21231.

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