John Herbert Harris Obituary – Cape Cod Times

John Herbert Harris

South Yarmouth – John Herbert Harris, 94, of South Yarmouth, MA and Peru, NY, passed away peacefully from this land on January 27, 2022, at the lodge in Hyannis, MA with his daughters by his side and classical music filling the room.

A wonderful Christmas present, John was born in Detroit MI on December 24, 1927 to Jennie (Leahey) Harris and Herbert Harris. He grew up in Detroit and was accepted to the prestigious Cass Technical High School, where he studied engineering. World War II interrupted John’s studies when he was drafted into the United States Navy as a high school student. He served as an Airman Radio Navigator for 2 years on active duty, stationed in Hawaii, Guam and San Diego, then joined the Naval Reserves and returned to Cass Tech to complete high school. The family moved to a farm in West Chazy, New York, and John worked hard to get through college and graduate school, working jobs from Westport with the Delaware & Hudson Railroad to the A&P in Plattsburgh. In Plattsburgh, at a fateful party that would change his life forever, he met his sweetheart Joan and they were married in 1953, savoring 57 years of marriage until Joan passed away in 2010.

Everyone who met John saw that he had such a big heart. He was kind and generous to his family, friends, and even strangers, ready to lend a hand whenever he could. John was fully embraced as part of Joan’s extended family of 11 siblings, becoming an honorary Wells from the start. They owned a string of hotels on Cape Cod from 1972 to 1986. Vacationing guests and even some staff members liked the Harrises so much they followed them from hotel to hotel and many became lifelong friends. Even in later years when he relied more on the help of others, he was always there with a kind word, a please or a thank you. He enjoyed sharing stories of his life and did so with a lively wit and humor. John loved animals and took special care of all of Joanie’s cats for the past 12 years after her passing. But that big heart was especially devoted to his daughters: his beloved partner in crime, Joan, and his two daughters Mary and Kathleen. He and Joan opened their hearts to these two little girls, adopting them both as infants, giving them a loving and nurturing home. When the curious girls asked where they were from, John described a large room filled with rows of cribs (a baby “grocery store” in their young minds). He said he and Joan walked down the aisles looking at every little face until one of them smiled at him and pointed, proudly announcing, “I want her!” The girls always felt like they had been specially chosen by their father. In turn, Mary cared for John later in life, allowing him to live independently at home and her love, care and oversight of his health gave them all many precious years together. John was their protector and until the very end he reminded the lead-footed Mary to drive carefully every day.

Education and lifelong learning were central themes in John’s life. He attended Champlain College and SUNY Plattsburgh, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s of education in history and science. He also took classes at UVM, Dickinson College and really enjoyed the skills in the trades. Supplemented by his training as an engineer at Cass Tech, but largely self-taught, he had a passion for engineering design, architectural drafting, construction, masonry and woodworking. John designed and built the two-level brick home on the corner of School Street and Birchwood Dr in Peru, NY with a bay window and a large stoneware hearth and fireplace that served as the gathering place for so many holidays and parties. extended family events. He had a curiosity and a passion for learning which he instilled in his children, and there was never any question of his daughters going to college. John taught himself to sail and at 52 took flying lessons, went solo and earned his private pilot’s license (alongside 16-year-old Kathleen). He was a self-made entrepreneur, working hard to successfully manage and maintain Cape Cod hotels during the summer while teaching full-time during the school year.

In New York, John was best known as one of Peru’s favorite high school Earth science teachers for 30 years, where he guided many young minds by teaching them geology, astronomy, meteorology, history of the earth and much more. He was both loved and revered by his students with his tough-guy speech on the first day of school: “I’m here to be your teacher, not your friend.” This act quickly evaporated and they all discovered his dry humor and soft side. He joked that being born on Christmas Eve brought him closer to God and would demonstrate it with panache by opening the blinds declaring “Let there be light…and there was”, miraculously illuminating the dark room after a science film of the earth. A class in the early 80s threw him a prom party with a giant card they made pronouncing him “Earth Science’s Greatest Teacher”. John also ran the high school’s downhill ski club for years, giving students the opportunity to ski near Lake Placid at Whiteface Mountain. The NY State Board of Regents even asked him to help pass the Earth Science Regents exam. John was a true man of science and taught his students to appreciate the natural world around them. In recent years, he received a letter from a student thanking him and explaining that he had studied to be an American geologist inspired by John’s example and passion. His own grandsons, Sam and Ben, both went on to teaching early in their careers; Sam teaches high school chemistry and earth science of all things!

Despite his modest Depression-era upbringing, John was drawn to the arts and culture. He loved classical music, opera and ballet. At the age of 10, in Detroit, every Sunday afternoon, he listened to the CBS radio program of the NY Philharmonic Symphony. When he was 7 years old, his grandfather gave him a stamp album and it started a lifelong passion for all things stamps: collecting, research and history. Stamp collecting served him well late in life, engaging his mind and imagination as he studied and “traveled” to distant lands through his stamps. He was a regular at the monthly meetings of the Cape Cod area philatelic group where he shared his vast knowledge of stamps and made many special friendships. As the current Stamp Club leader said, “John was a valued member of our club, and we enjoyed his good humor and his stories.”

Best dad ever, family man, science teacher, hotel owner, navy man, classical music and stamp enthusiast who could fix, build, restore just about anything…. a real jack-of-all-trades and a renaissance man. It was John.

John was predeceased by his parents, Jennie and Herbert Harris, his brothers, Francis “Bud” and Raymond Harris and his beloved wife Joan F (Wells) Harris. He is survived by his daughters Mary Harris (Mike Lewis), Kathleen Harris Orlin (Eric Orlin), his grandsons Sam and Ben Orlin and several brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews and kittens.

Donations in lieu of flowers may be made to the American Diabetes Association (, allies of alley cats ( or St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital ( The memorial service and interment will be held in Plattsburgh, NY later in the spring.

Arrangements have been entrusted to Brown Funeral Home, 29 Broad Street, Plattsburgh, NY 12901, 518-561-3980 and online condolences can be made at

Posted on February 02, 2022

Posted in Cape Cod Times

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