Robert J. Harris: Dedicated to proud past of Dunkirk

A Witness for?history

Robert J. Harris

There are by now a set number of people who can remember Dunkirk in the 1940s through the ’70s when radical transformations took place here due to business change, population change and Urban Renewal.

  When local people reminisce about Dunkirk’s past, they think fondly of such things as industry flourishing, businesses lining both sides of Central Avenue and Main Street, and seeing impressive structures of brick on its streets.

One of the people who was able to reminisce about THAT Dunkirk was Robert J. Harris. Born Jan. 8, 1932, graduate of Dunkirk Schools, Class of 1952, and Air Force veteran of the Korean War, he was witness to most of the crucial changes Dunkirk has endured, but he differed from some in that he dedicated himself to his city and to its betterment.

I knew Bob in the later years of his life, after I became president of the Historical Society of Dunkirk and while he was still serving as city historian. He would often stop by the museum just to visit, often to support us in some way, offering advice, making purchases. He was always enthusiastic, always supportive, even though in the 10 or so years I knew him he was dealing with cancer and other ailments. But most of all, when Bob visited he would tell stories. Bob was a story teller, and he told them with a chuckle and inflection in his voice that made them more interesting. He would tell those of us at the museum about seeing the Tom Mix circus play in the Nelson Opera house when he was a boy — when the Opera House still stood on Central Avenue.

He was so enamored of circuses that he built his own model circus — the John Robert Circus. The parade of the circus lined wooden shelves he had built around his basement walls. Bob proudly transported and displayed the circus at local libraries and schools over the years for others to enjoy. A most important story of Bob’s was about the chance Dunkirk had to obtain one of the largest locomotives Dunkirk’s Brooks Locomotive Works ever made, but the city turned it down, reinforcing how so much of Dunkirk’s history had been lost simply because there was no Society, no museum to champion a cause. He knew the history of the city well, and I would often call him to check on some past event that I knew he would know about.

Harris at a Hisotorical Society of Dunkirk display booth.

Up to 1973, Dunkirk had no Historical Society and no museum. Many other towns and cities of similar population had had a museum for years — the county formed a Historical Society in 1883 and the McClurg in Westfield was occupied as a museum back in 1951, and the Fenton in Jamestown began in 1964. But not Dunkirk.

That changed on March 12, 1973, when a couple dozen people held a meeting at the Dunkirk Library and organized The Historical Society of Dunkirk.

Robert James Harris was one of those couple dozen people who became charter members of the society that day. Bob became the Society’s first treasurer, a position he held until 1980. He was elected the society’s second president in that year. He was instrumental in acquiring the charter for the Society from the New York state Department of Education. Bob worked with others present at that meeting for the over 40 years he worked with the museum — Louis Van Wey, Louise Nowak, Norman Boorady, Phil Hanlon, Don Loeb, Kim Hollander, Leonard Schrantz, Pauline Valone, and city historian the Rev. Leslie Chard — almost all of them now gone.

In a recent email from former OBSERVER reporter Ted Lutz, who was present at that meeting and who is also a charter member, he reminisced about Bob, saying, “[I] Just remember Bob’s enthusiasm and keen interest in Dunkirk history. He was a great guy who was a key figure with the society.”

The group created a small one-room, then two-room museum in the city water department garage, built shelving and displays, and then procured the present building for its use. Everything came from their work starting from scratch, none of them trained as museum experts, but each of them eager to create something special for their city. Bob worked at Great Lakes Color Printing Corp. as pressman. He was married to Janet Jalsevac, with whom he had daughters Cheryl and Deb, widowed, remarried to Sarah Valone, and step father to Pam, Karen, Katherine, Linda, Renae, and Larry. He attended St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish. He may have been an ordinary citizen of the city, but he chose not to be ordinary by trying to enhance the city, to make things happen for its improvement.

The dedication of the Locomotive 444. It includes, from left, first row: Roy Davis, Bob Harris, Ray Haines. At top is Roger Schulenberg, right.

Bob had a special friendship with Roy Davis, and together with Roger Schulenberg, Ray Haines, Keith Osman, and Gary Anson, their knowledge of the local railroads and Brooks Locomotive Works was second to none. In the railroad room of the museum is a set of tools once owned by Bob’s father, John Harris, former employee of the ALCO plant that had once been Brooks. This group of men spearheaded bringing a Brooks locomotive back home to Dunkirk.

And he championed other causes, working vigorously to improve and expand the Society’s goals, including participation in committees that erected a monument to the coming of the first train to Dunkirk in 1851 (1976); that put the Dunkirk Historical Lighthouse on the National Historic Register (1978-79); that created a plaque honoring Sgt. Thomas Horan as Dunkirk’s only Medal of Honor recipient (1979); that created the ALCO/Brooks display at the Chautauqua County Fairgrounds (1989). Bob was also instrumental in procuring the present building it inhabits as its museum. He along with Davis, Schulenberg, Mike Sheffield, and Diane Genung formed the Neptune Committee to salvage and restore the fountain (1985-2000). In all these endeavors he worked with other society members and city officials to achieve goals. Bob knew how to do that. The society awarded Bob the Walter Smith Award at its Annual Dinner in 1989 for his efforts.

As he recalled his involvement with the Society, he of the time the Society approached the Dunkirk Common Council. “We asked them to give us a chance and we’d give the city a museum it could be proud of. … They did, and we did. We thank you for the museum, and I thank you for this honor,” Harris said at the 1989 annual dinner.

Bob also understood the importance of instructing younger generations in the history of the city, so he presented historical programs to elementary schools in the Dunkirk Public School System and arranged for a special program with James Getty re-enacting the life of President Abraham Lincoln (1988).

Bob also served as city historian starting in 2010 and continuing until 2016.

A wreath was placed on Locomotive 444 in memory of Robert Harris.

A city and community might consider itself blessed when it has people willing to work toward goals that benefit that community. Certainly businesses and jobs are important, but a city also must develop institutions that establish quality of life for itself, institutions such as libraries and parks and museums. Robert James Harris was one of those community minded citizens who made Dunkirk better. We of the City of Dunkirk thank him. His passing in October 2018 is a loss for the city as well as his family and friends,

In honor of Bob, the Historical Society has established the Robert J. Harris Endowment of the Historical Society of Dunkirk. This wishing to contribute to this fund by contacting the Northern Chautauqua Community Foundation carry on Bob’s legacy.

Diane Andrasik is Dunkirk city historian.