Obituary of Don Harrell

December 18, 2018

Don William Harrell died in New York City on December 18, 2018, somewhat unexpectedly but after struggling for several months with a variety of health problems. Called Sonny as a child and young man (and even well into adulthood by those who knew him longest), Don was born in Camden, Arkansas, on January 22, 1938, to Don and Annie Lea Harrell, and lived there until he went to Hendrix College. Soon after graduating, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for Senator Fulbright and, much to his later amusement, served on the U.S. Capitol police force. He also earned master's degrees in International Relations from American University and in English from George Washington University. He decided not to pursue further education in International Relations when, taking the final for his degree, he realized he couldn't remember the difference between Iran and Iraq. He then got a Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt University. It was in Nashville that he met his wife, Christine (Roberts) Harrell, who was also a graduate student in English. They married in July 1968. Together, they moved to Houston, where Don taught English at the University of Houston, and they had their two children, John in 1970 and Jeremy in 1974. Frustrated by academia (he eventually published an op-ed for the New York Times headlined "Publish or Perish -- I'm Out, and Glad"), Don took his family to Little Rock, Ark., to work for his childhood friend David Pryor, who was elected governor of Arkansas in 1974. Don served as his press secretary. In 1978, the family moved to Albany, N.Y., where Don worked for the State University of New York administration, and then to Arlington, Va., in 1981, where he returned to working for Pryor, who was by then in the U.S. Senate. Don served as Sen. Pryor's administrative assistant, which is Hill-speak for chief of staff. Unexpectedly, former colleagues from SUNY invited him to consider a position at TIAA, the higher-education retirement fund. Starting in 1992, Don spent more than a decade as head of TIAA's external affairs. Just as important, Don fulfilled a lifelong dream of living in New York City. Don retired in 2003 and spent some of his retirement serving on non-profit boards, including the Theater Development Fund, the Stepping Stones Foundation, and the American Shakespeare Center. Don is survived by his wife, Chris; his sister, Amy; his beloved daughter-in-law, Jenny, and her husband, John, and their children, Eliot and Martha Jane; and his son Jeremy and his daughters, Louisa and Marianne. He is predeceased by his sister Dotty.

All of these facts, while interesting, fail to convey who Don was and what he meant to so, so many people. Don was a voracious reader of fiction, poetry, biography, and history. He was a writer of essays for publications such as Runner's World, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times Magazine, and he was a regular book critic for the Houston Chronicle. He had a deep love of the theater, starting from childhood when his father would bring him to New York to see plays. In almost comical fashion, he could recall, decades later, which actor played which part in which play in which theater. Don also was an accomplished pianist and filled his home with the sounds of Chopin and Joplin, Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim. But more than anything, Don was a kind, selfless, warm, hilarious, generous, loving person. To know Don for even a few minutes was to be his friend. He saw the best in everyone, and, even against resistance, was able to help people see it in themselves. Through his experience, strength, and hope, he saved countless lives.

There will be a service at St. Bartholomew's Church on Park Avenue in Manhattan on Jan. 14 at 3 p.m. Donations in lieu of flowers can be made to the American Shakespeare Center, Oxfam, and the New York Restoration Project.

Funeral Services

Memorial Service

January 14, 2019

3:00 PM to 4:00 PM

St. Bartholomew's Church

325 Park Avenue

New York, NY 10022

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Posted by: a loved one - , - December 22, 2018

Don was one of the kindest souls I have ever encountered. I knew him from my time working for Senator David Pryor. His voice was so calming. And the range of emotions Don could convey with his wonderful face without saying a word is something I will always remember.

Posted by: John Edwards - Little Rock, AR - December 22, 2018

When someone we love falls asleep in death the memories we have of them become our treasure, may those cherished memories of a life well lived and Gods promise at
John 6:40 bring you some comfort during this most difficult time. My condolences to the family.

Posted by: - , - December 26, 2018

May God provide comfort and solace to aching hearts as your beloved rest in peace.

Posted by: - , - December 31, 2018

Sending prayers of peace and strength. Don was not only a first cousin but also a life-long friend. He will be missed.
Love, John and Margi Harrell

Posted by: John Harrell - Camden, AR - January 1, 2019

I met Don in 2010, and he has been a good friend and mentor ever since. I'm grateful for the memories.

Posted by: Erik Wildt - New York, NY - January 4, 2019

I met Don and Chris through a mutual friend when I first moved to Houston in 1973 and they quickly became good friends. Don was so warm, so kind, so ethical and so blazingly intelligent that he inspired friendship and trust. I saw him and his family over the years in Little Rock, in Washington and then in New York, and it always seemed as if no time had elapsed between visits. But what I'm thinking about tonight are those days in Houston sitting around the table in the Harrell's wonderful old house in University Oaks when we were very young. All the laughter. Don, you were one of the finest people I've ever known. You will be missed and remembered.

Posted by: Susan Wood - Miami, FL - January 4, 2019

I met Don in NYC around 1990 at a tumultuous time in my life. With his easy, steady disposition, he reassured me that life was going to turn out all right. And of course, it has. Don was a mentor and a dear friend, and I don't ever remember a time where I left him without a smile on each of our faces.

I'll miss the times sitting and catching up, or the walks, or the periodic jogs in Central Park when Don was able to run years ago.

My love to Chris, Jeremy and John - he touched so many of us, and we were all so fortunate that you shared him with us.

God grant me the serenity...

Posted by: Joe Bachana - New York, NY - January 11, 2019