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James R. “Dickie” Harris had a fine tenor voice and enjoyed singing in public.
James R. “Dickie” Harris had a fine tenor voice and enjoyed singing in public. (HANDOUT)

James R. “Dickie” Harris, former aquatics director for the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks, who was known for his gardening abilities and fine tenor voice, died Oct. 16 of complications from a stroke at Seasons Hospice at Sinai Hospital. The longtime Ashburton resident was 81.

“Dickie was a fun-loving person who enjoyed working with people,” said Jean D. Powell, who was assistant superintendent of Recreation and Parks at the time of her retirement in 1993. “He was really good when it came to working with young people and was a great male influence on the young boys.”

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James Richard Harris, the son of Dr. Bernard Harris Sr., a physician, and his wife, Ethel Travers Harris, a schoolteacher, was born in East Baltimore.

“He was delivered at home by his father. They lived on Caroline Street and his father’s office was across the street from their home,” said his wife of 55 years, the former Mildred Smoot. “His mother had to stop teaching because she was pregnant, and in those days, you weren’t allowed to teach if you were expecting a baby, so she became a homemaker and raised her family of eight."

While some members of his family became members of Centennial United Methodist Church in East Baltimore, Mr. Harris, a sister and brother became members of St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church, where he was an altar boy.

After graduating from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, where he played varsity baseball and football and was a member of the golf team, Mr. Harris, who was known as Dickie, began his college studies at what is now Morgan State University, where he majored in health and physical education.

While at Morgan, Mr. Harris, an outstanding swimmer, was a member of its swim team. His interest in swimming began in his youth when he was a lifeguard at Druid Hill Park and on the Magothy River, where his family had a summer home. He also enjoyed crabbing, fishing and visiting nearby beaches.

“He often boasted of the fact that his record on the team is still highly visible in the university’s Hall of Fame,” said Mrs. Harris, who was principal of Southwestern High School.

At the end of his sophomore year, Mr. Harris transferred to Central State University in Xenia, Ohio, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1961 in health and physical education.

Drafted into the Army, he served from 1961 to 1964 in special services assisting with athletic programs for soldiers and youth.

He was stationed at Fort Gordon, Georgia, and Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. While stationed at the latter, he met and fell in love with his future wife, an Atlanta native who was then teaching school at C.A. Johnson High School in Columbia.

After marrying in 1964, the couple moved to Baltimore, where Mr. Harris began his 30-year career with city Recreation and Parks as a recreation leader at Cloverdale Recreation Center in Northwest Baltimore.

Mr. Harris was later promoted to senior center director at Mary E. Rodman Recreation Center on West Mulberry Street. For the last five years of his career until retiring in 1994, he was citywide director of the department’s Aquatics Division.

“When I was responsible for taking over operation of the pools — there were 23 at the time in the city — I knew Dickie had worked with the pools years before as a lifeguard at Druid Hill Park,” recalled Ms. Powell, a Park Heights resident who spent 31 years with Recreation and Parks.

“He was my assistant and during summers we were open seven days a week, which meant we had to hire 300 to 400 people such as lifeguards to work the pools,” she said. “We also worked together setting up ways to charge people to use the pools, which used to be free.”

His professional memberships included the U.S. Lifesaving Association and the National Recreation and Parks Association. He was also a certified pool and spa operator.

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Mr. Harris was unfailingly kind and supportive of those who had needs.

“He had an inexhaustible supply of compassion for those in need and was quick to help youngsters with college tuition, others to pay rent, property taxes, car insurance, traffic tickets, all with no expectation of being repaid,” Mrs. Harris wrote in a biographical profile of her husband.

A longtime member of the Elks, Mr. Harris was a member of Elks Lodge No. 103 in East Baltimore, where he held numerous positions. He was a past grand exalted ruler. He also headed the education and athletic departments of the Tri-State Elks of Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia.

Mr. Harris was a member of several social clubs such as the No Name Club, Meritocrats, Baltimore Driftwood and Baltimore Mules. Because he enjoyed playing golf, he was a member of the Forest Park Senior Golfers.

Known for his fine tenor voice, Mr. Harris liked singing Christmas carols such as “Oh, Holy Night.” At No Name Club dinner dances, the evening’s revelry wasn’t over until he led guests in singing “The Party’s Over,” and it “wasn’t over until he sang,” his wife said.

A resident of Ashburton for 36 years, Mr. Harris was given the nickname of the “Luther Burbank of Dennlyn Road” for his prized beefsteak tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and several “accidental” hybrid vegetables, such as when he “planted the cucumbers and zucchini a little too close to each other one time,” Mrs. Harris said.

Mr. Harris, whose favorite car was a convertible, liked to drive to conventions, to conclaves and on annual vacations. He was an international traveler and particularly liked to travel by steamship.

He also liked expeditions with his golf buddies to local tournaments as well as to Carroll Valley, Pennsylvania, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Funeral services for Mr. Harris will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Union Baptist Church, 1219 Druid Hill Ave., Baltimore.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by many nieces and nephews.

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