Junior Harris told everyone that being director of the Simmons Center in Duncan was his dream job.
During his six years there, his friends and colleagues say he proved his love for job seven days a week.
He was there during business hours, of course, but he also was there in the evenings and on weekends, always with a ready smile and frequently surrounded by some of the young people he helped coach and mentor.
His death on Monday in a one-car accident stunned Duncan and those who knew him in Lawton, where he lived and worked many years before taking over the leadership of the Simmons Center, where many of his friends and colleagues were in tears in Tuesday.
“He was laughing all the time. He just meant so much to so many kids,” said Chuck Siess, a Simmons Center board member. “He was a father figure for a lot of them.”
Harris was hired as the Simmon Center director in January 2008 after serving as membership director of the Lawton YMCA.
“He would do anything for anybody. He would give somebody the shirt of his back. He didn’t care who you were, where you were from, he would do what he could to help you out,” said Maria Gordon, business manager of the Lawton YMCA.
The Duncan City Council on Tuesday evening remembered Harris during its invocation. “We lost a good man yesterday,” Councilman Tommy Edwards said during the prayer.
Later, Mayor Gene Brown noted that Harris made efforts to encourage everyone in Duncan, particularly those in less economically advantaged parts of town, to get their kids involved in the Simmons Center programs.
Harris sometimes would show up unexpectedly at out-of-town basketball tournaments for Simmons Center teams even though he didn’t coach them, said Brown.
“His passion was to see young kids grow and develop in sports,” said the mayor.
Added Councilman Mike Nelson, “He saw sports as a metaphor for life.”
“He was proud to be associated with the Simmons Center,” added Cindy Reynolds, Simmons Center Board chairwoman, said. “He treated it like it was his.”
Harris loved sports, but he also was “brilliant with finances,” Reynolds said.
As a member of Duncan Rotary Club, Harris was involved in the Rotary Youth Leadership Association, which helps young adults develop leadership skills.
“They loved and adored him,” Reynolds said.
Before moving to Duncan, Harris was co-chair of the United Way program in Lawton. He continued that volunteer work with United Way of Stephens County in Duncan.
Lauren Ellis, who ran the Stephens County United Way before recently taking over as executive director for the United Way of Southwest Oklahoma in Lawton, said Harris coached her daughter at the Simmons Center.
“He was so compassionate and had such a heart for kids, and I think we need more adults like him who are willing to stick their necks out for our youth. And he did that on a daily basis. He was an amazing man,” Ellis said.
The Simmons Center Board issued a statement on Tuesday that said, “Junior loved his family unconditionally and always put them as a priority in his life. He sincerely loved the Simmons Center and its staff. Junior was a dedicated executive director and viewed it as the pinnacle of his career.
“He often compared his assignment at the Simmons Center to that of an athlete achieving the chance to go to the national championship. Junior was a man of enormous compassion and was a great role model to the hundreds of kids he mentored over the years. We pass our sincerest condolences to Junior’s family, friends, colleagues and members of the Simmons Center.”