Dec. 6, 2023
First United Methodist Church
Dr. Edsel Lanier Harrell.
What a man.
What a life, all 96 years.
What a beloved and respected pillar in this community.
What a friend to so many of us.
When my dad died in 1998, Doc became a father figure and my confidant. We had a very special relationship. He was the last remaining member of my personal board of directors. All six—with the exception of my dad—lived deep into their 90s.
Sunday, the day before he died, I stood by Doc’s bedside, praying that he would open his eyes so that we could visit one more time.
God heard my silent prayers, and Doc’s blue eyes met mine. Out from under the hospital sheet, he lifted his right hand for me to hold. I will forever be grateful for that opportunity to tell my mentor, my friend, how much he meant to me and how much I loved him.
Our conversation was brief, and then Doc smiled and said, “About that ball game (he was referring to Georgia losing to Alabama), it’s not the end of the world.” And then he closed his eyes. More sage advice from one of the wisest men I will ever know.
If Dr. Lanier Harrell was anything, he was decisive.
Until the very end, his encyclopedic mind was razor-sharp. And when he made up his mind, that was that. Stubborn doesn’t come close, does it, Mike and Roy?
For years Eric Denty and I tried to induct Doc into the Wayne County Sports Hall of Fame. He flat-out refused. We had no choice but to surprise him.
Doc and I talked often. And after Evelyn died, we shared many meals together. I cherished those visits. About 10 years ago, he said, “You know that you are giving my eulogy.” It wasn’t a request. It was a directive.
“Well, Doc, I didn’t know. But I’d be honored. Just don’t make it too soon.” Then he handed me something and said, “You might want to use it.”
Doc had adapted this piece, written by Isla Paschal Richardson:
“When I leave you, whom I love,
To go along the Silent Way,
Grieve not, nor speak of me with tears,
But laugh and talk of me as if I were beside you there.
And when you hear a song or see a bird I loved,
Please do not let the thought of me be sad …
For I am loving you just as I always have …
You were so good to me!
There are so many things that I wanted still to do …
So many things to say to you …
Remember that I did not fear …
It was just leaving you that was so hard to face …
We cannot see Beyond …
But I know:
I love you so …
’Twas heaven here with you!”
Doc was decisive about every detail of today’s service, including what to serve for lunch. Hannah Martin, his granddaughter, has had the menu for a decade. His instructions included me sharing the pulpit with the Methodist minister. He was emphatic: no tears. Use some humor and keep it short.
So, I ask, “How did Dr. Lanier Harrell come into your life?”
Here’s how he came into mine. Walk back with me to 1958 and listen.
Knock, knock, knock.
From my feverish sickbed, I heard a knock on the door of our tiny apartment in NeSmith Funeral home. Mother said, “Come in, Dr. Harrell,” and she led him to my bunk bed on the closed-in back porch.
With a stethoscope around his neck, the young doctor reached over and touched my forehead with the back of his hand. “Hmmm,” he said, and pulled two things from his black bag: a thermometer and one of those wooden ice-cream-stick-looking things. After checking my temperature, he said, “Say ahhhhhhh.” I remember gagging. I can still taste the wood on my tongue.
Once he listened to my rattling chest, Doc poked penicillin into my boney backside. A few days later, I was sitting in my Orange Street Elementary School’s desk.
That’s how far back my memories go of Dr. Lanier Harrell.
I loved when Doc shared his memories:
§ As a barefoot boy in Jeff Davis County, riding his mule Tom across the creek on his way to school.
§ Playing football and running track at Waycross High School.
§ Being recruited by Coach Frank Howard to play football for the Clemson Tigers.
§ Transferring to the University of Georgia.
§ Joining the Navy.
§ Working on the railroad.
§ Moving to Wayne County to teach and coach, waiting to get into medical college.
§ Dating and marrying another teacher, the sheriff’s daughter, Evelyn Warren.
§ Coaching football, basketball and track at Jesup High School.
§ Splitting school-bus-driving duties in the mornings to earn another $37.50 per month.
§ Working part-time at S&R Men’s Shop to boost his income.
§ Serving as business manager of Jesup Bees, a semi-pro baseball team.
§ Adoring the remarkable woman—his wife, Evelyn—and their three children: Charlotte, Mike and Roy.
§ Moving his family to Augusta so that he could finally attend medical school.
§ Coming back to Jesup to deliver babies for $5.
§ Often getting paid in pecans, vegetables and fish.
§ Loving his patients and Wayne County.
§ Serving as team doctor for the Jesup High Yellow Jackets.
§ Traveling to watch the Georgia Bulldogs.
§ Going to D.C. with Evelyn, Jimmy and Vonice Sullivan to cheer for Len Hauss, All-Pro center of the Washington Redskins
§ Returning to college and specializing in radiology.
§ Retiring as the head of Wayne Memorial Hospital’s radiology department.
One of Doc’s decisive moves, in 1960, puts me here 63 years later. Doc co-founded the Wayne County Press with Norris Strickland. In time, Elliott Brack became Doc’s partner. And in 1971 I came home to join them. In 1976 they sold their interests in the weekly newspaper. I stuck with it. And as they say, the rest is history.
(Doc, I’m hurrying.)
Dr. Lanier Harrell—your friend and mine—was a man of many talents. He was a voracious reader and a historian. He was my personal Google, long before such a thing was invented in Silicon Valley.
Almost every day, I mailed Doc a packet of material. We were a two-man book club. And when I called or visited, he had a list of questions about what he had read.
I will be lost without those conversations and not being able to ask Doc questions. Many of you will be lost, too.
Doc was a splendid raconteur. He relished a good story, especially a funny one.
One day, Lauree Hires called Doc. She was in a panic, going into labor. Her physician, Dr. Woodrow Yeomans, was with her husband, Robie. They were fishing in the Altamaha River swamp. Dr. Harrell stepped in and delivered a baby boy, Herschell, who would eventually become chairman of the Wayne County commission.
For years thereafter, if Doc and Lauree were together in crowd, he’d put his arm around her and announce, “This lady and I had a baby together.”
Two weeks ago, I called to check on Doc. You could tell that he was fading, but he hadn’t lost his sense of humor.
“How are you doing, Doc?”
“Did I tell you about the three men sitting on a bench?”
“One was young. One was middle-aged. And the other was old. The young man gushed about his beautiful girlfriend. The middle-aged man talked about the good steak that he ate last night. And the old man bragged about his morning bowel movement.”
Doc quipped, “I am that old man.”
And we laughed.
Doc was decisive.
He didn’t want tears today.
Doc wanted laughter.
As I stand here, following his instructions, I see his family. Oh, how Doc loved you—his children, his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren. You honored his wish. You cared for him in the family’s home on Buggs Bluff. You all did whatever it took to make him happy and comfortable. And the spirit of Evelyn lived through granddaughters Becky and Hannah. Brenda Anderson and John Benner, you were among the angels on the Bluff, too.
Do you hear it?
Knock, knock, knock.
That’s Doc saying, “OK, that’s enough.”
I’d never want to disappoint him.
There’s another word to describe this legendary man.
Doc will be irreplaceable.
I am just thankful that we had Dr. Edsel Lanier Harrell for 96 years.