… witch-hunt survivor, Costa Rican entrepreneur, development pioneer.
The old children’s rhyming game could not possibly cover the myriad careers in the storied life of Jack Sargent Harris, who died in his Escazú home Aug. 2 of heart failure. He was 96.
One of Costa Rica’s leading industrialists and a major contributor to the nation’s development, Harris credited “luck” for the many twists and turns taken by his life, which began in the U.S. city of Chicago, Illinois, as the son of Jewish immigrants from Romania. His parents ran a small grocery store and lived with their six children in two rooms behind the store.
After graduating from high school, Harris found a job as an office boy for a publishing company, working his way up to assistant production manager. When the Depression obliged the company to cut back, he decided to try his luck as a sailor.
Although he had no experience, he landed a seaman’s job at the last moment and for the next three years sailed the world, learning about other countries and cultures. Africa especially intrigued him.
His next lucky break occurred when, unable to find work on a ship, he returned to Chicago, and a high-school classmate suggested he apply to NorthwesternUniversity in Evanston, Illinois, where he discovered anthropology. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa and went on to ColumbiaUniversity in New York City for his doctorate.
Harris did fieldwork on the White Knife Shoshoni in the U.S. state of Nevada, and the Ibo in Nigeria in west central Africa, making a name for himself as one of the first anthropologists to focus on economic anthropology and agriculture, and the role of women.
When he returned to the U.S., he taught at OhioStateUniversity in Columbus, Ohio until World War II.
He then volunteered as an African expert, becoming one of two-dozen U.S. anthropologists working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The sailor-anthropologist-professor-spy was assigned to South Africa, where he met his future wife, Shirley Oates McGregor, a feisty Australian with important social connections who facilitated his intelligence work.
After the war, Harris taught at the University of Chicago until 1947, when he was invited to work on the Trusteeship Division at the United Nations. Among those he met and mentored was Edmond Woodbridge, Costa Rica’s representative on the U.N.’s first visiting mission to the international body’s TrustTerritories.
Harris worked to promote self-government for African nations struggling under colonial rule, pointing out cases of racism and injustice.
But in 1952, he became a victim of injustice himself, finding himself caught up in a McCarthy era-inspired purge at the U.N., during which he repeatedly had to plead the Fifth Amendment to avoid incriminating friends and colleagues accused of being Communists. As a result, he was fired.
In 1954, at the invitation of Woodbridge, he, Shirley, and their 4-year-old son, Michael, moved to Costa Rica to try to rebuild their life.
His lawyers appealed his case all the way to theWorld Court
in The Hague. Years later, Harris was awarded compensation of $40,000 because of his “outstanding professional competence” and the fact that his career as an anthropologist had been destroyed.
With a Tico business partner, Harris’ first venture here was a taxi fleet. He had never even read a balance sheet, but the taxis were so successful that he used the profits to start Costa Rica’s first cement plant with a group of Costa Rican associates.
Many other enterprises followed, among them Ricalit, a fiber-cement roofing factory started with Swiss investors; COFISA, a major development bank; the country’s first mushroom farm; the Tropical brewery; and INPASA, which manufactures industrial paper bags.
As always, Harris credited “extraordinary luck” for his success.
Recalling his humble origins, he often expressed awe at having been welcomed so warmly into Costa Rican society, and was known for his kindness and generosity toward his employees and their families.
Although he became a naturalized Costa Rican, Harris maintained close ties with the U.S. He was a founding member of the American Colony Committee, which organizes the annual Independence Day picnic for U.S. expats here.
The whole Harris family, including Michael and younger son Jonathan, enthusiastically collaborated with The Tico Times.
Shirley was a mainstay on the staff from the paper’s founding in 1956 until her death in 2002; Jack wrote a much-reprinted series on investments in Costa Rica, plus frequent commentary and letters, always with sharp wit and insight.
Well into his 96th year, Harris was vital, active and interested in everything. While managing a busy social calendar, he read voraciously, maintained lively e-mail correspondence with friends and family around the world and took delight in entertaining visitors with colorful stories of his lucky, legendary life.
He is survived by sons Michael, of London, and Jonathan, of Los Angeles, California and Escazú; brother Alvin; and grandchildren Peter, Philip, Amalia, David and Laura. Condolences may be sent to Apartado 137-1250, Escazú, Costa Rica.