Commentary: Earl Harris was a classic mentor

They say you should live such a long life that, when you die, you will have no friends left to attend your funeral. Last month, Earl Harris passed away at the age of 90 and he went one better. At his request, he had no funeral at all. The only mark of his passing was a short obituary in The Indianapolis Star undoubtedly paid for by his family as per Starowner Gannett Co.’s policy. Permit me to add a little more.

Earl was an American hero. During World War II, he was a gunner who flew 26 missions over Germany and was credited with shooting down many enemy planes. One morning, Earl spiked a high temperature and wasn’t able to fly. A gunner on his first mission took Earl’s place. The plane crashed on take-off with a full bomb load, killing all aboard. Earl continued to fly missions until his tour of duty was completed. He was decorated for his bravery and his service to his country. By the end of the war, he had endured a number of life-in-jeopardy experiences and the excitement that went with them-all before the age of 30.

In the 1950s, Earl co-founded and led Paul Harris Stores to prominence as a nationally known and respected clothier. Years later, when Jerry Harkness was granted a franchise for Athlete’s Foot and needed a mentor, I did not hesitate to recommend Earl. According to Jerry, Earl told him, “I’ve been there; you’re going to make it.” Jerry says if it weren’t for Earl, he’d be closed by now.

Earl’s advice and counsel were sought often by many public companies as well as small businesses. He continued his consulting and mentoring until just a few months before his death.

Tom Shine, another entrepreneur mentored by Earl Harris, said that Earl, under a gruff nature, was the kindest, warmest and most concerned individual he knows. Tom credits Earl with being the most helpful person to him in business and in life. According to Tom, “Earl’s charisma, intellect, integrity, intensity and, at times, challenging and outrageous behavior left an imprint on everyone he met. Everyone admired Earl. He was a classic.”

A few months ago, my wife, Janie, and I had dinner with Earl. Although his health was failing, he still had his mental faculties. He was, as always, an interesting dinner companion. We discussed business, politics and the future.

The Harris family invited friends and associates to share their memories of Earl at Let me share with you some of the comments from that space:

“Earl was a consultant to me during the formative period of the Circle Centre mall development. Earl said, ‘Doing it right wasn’t good enough. To succeed you have to be better than it’s ever been done before and different than it’s ever been done before.’ And he repeated it every time he saw me. We tried to follow his advice.” -Herman Renfro, former vice president of development at Simon

“What a guy. I remember the first time I met Earl back in 1974, he said to me (on my first day on the job), ‘Prepare to work your butt off.’ He was right and I did. Earl was a mentor, had high standards and was a champion to those that showed promise.” -Bill Lawrence

“I am so glad that I had the chance to get to know Earl. He was a hard-charging man with a heart of gold. He had a keen intellect and it was always a learning experience when you were with him. You always knew where you stood with Earl.” -Winnie Goldblatt

I often say it is essential that would-be entrepreneurs find a mentor. Earl Harris was exactly the kind of person I had in mind. If only all our lives could be as complete and productive as Earl’s, how much improved our world would be. There was no funeral for Earl, as he wished, but friends will remember him and will cherish that memory for many years to come.

Maurer is a shareholder in IBJ Media Corp., which owns Indianapolis Business Journal.To comment on this column, send e-mail to

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