Melvin Ray Harris, a longtime employee of the United States Information Agency whose love of the outdoors led to stints with the National Park Service and as a volunteer at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore and the National Aquarium, died May 24 at the University of Maryland Medical Center of complications from a stroke. He was 83.
A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Mr. Harris moved with his family to Washington, D.C., when he was very young. Save for occasional periods, many while overseas working for the State Department and the USIA, he remained in Washington until moving to South Baltimore in 1990.
After graduating from George Washington University with a degree in cultural geography, Mr. Harris decided to take the Foreign Service exam "on a whim," said his daughter, Debra Harris, of Houston. "He was just walking down the street one day and saw a sign," she said.
After passing the exam, her father spent about three years in the Foreign Service, she said, beginning in 1955. While there, he began working for the USIA, focusing on cultural exchanges and exhibits in countries including Peru, Guatemala and India. "He shook Nehru's hand," Ms. Harris said, noting her father also worked on a cultural exchange exhibition with the Soviet Union around the time of the Cuban missile crisis.
"He and my mother, they had planned to live much of their lives overseas," Ms. Harris said. The couple settled in the U.S. for good, however, in 1961.
Following his retirement from the USIA in 1983, Mr. Harris indulged his lifelong love of the outdoors and spent three years as a ranger for the National Park Service, working on the National Mall in Washington.
"He lived in the Grand Canyon area for a year while he was young, and he would talk about hiking from rim to rim," Ms. Harris said. "He loved the outdoors. … He was always trying to talk my mom into ditching the city."
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Her father had a passion for photography that dovetailed nicely with his life overseas and his love of the outdoors, Ms. Harris said. "He used to get up early in the morning in Bombay, Mumbai, and walk around and take pictures," she said.
Mr. Harris participated in a longitudinal study of mental illness, focusing on bipolar disorder, for the National Institute of Mental Health. He spent more then 30 years promoting understanding of mental health issues.
In addition to working at the zoo and aquarium, Mr. Harris volunteered at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as an usher. As a young man in Washington, he worked as a Presbyterian youth leader, encouraging youth groups of different races to worship and meet together. In later years in Washington, he volunteered at the city's annual Folk Life Festival and at Arena Stage and the Kennedy Center.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Harris is survived by his wife of four years, Marge Benedum of Baltimore; a son, Bret Harris of Charlottesville, Va.; two more daughters, Alison Routt of Ellicott City, and Miranda Prescott of Providence, R.I.; eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He is also survived by a sister, Carolyn Prentice of Woodbine. An earlier marriage, to the former Sally Bruton, ended in 1981.
A memorial service is set for 2:30 p.m. July 12 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring, 10309 New Hampshire Ave.