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WPTF’s “Tar Heel Gardener” at 99

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Roger Gore, Marketing Director at Springmoor Life Care Retirement Community, has over ten years of experience working with seniors.

Even though John Harris was the Tar Heel Gardener on WPTF radio and public television for 40 years, you might not know him.

He doesn’t claim to have invented social media back in 1944, but he might have. After his long turn in the spotlight, he’s completely happy to let the birds tweet for him at Springmoor, bringing smiles daily as he entertains with wit, wisdom, joy, love of flowers and plants with an obvious Gusto for Life.

At 99, he isn’t large in stature, but his is a commanding presence. He recently fascinated an auditorium of 200 with stories of his entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to thrive as the Depression took its toll. He fully embodies an enjoyment of life while prospering, no matter the odds; however, as Springmoor’s Marketing Director, all I heard, as he addressed the audience, was the essence of marketing, customer service, perseverance and creative out-of-the-box thinking.

As a former faculty member at N.C. State University, Harris became a regular on WPTF, Raleigh’s premier radio station, from 1944 until he retired, but he never stopped dedicating himself to the art of making things grow. He was also featured on a similar show on UNC public television for many years.

Harris learned the value of hard work when he was just four years old in Chatham County. Every day a man hauling logs to a saw mill would go through his family’s property, and Harris, as a pint-size entrepreneur, remembers, “I’d run out and open the gate, and he’d give me a penny. And pretty soon I had a quarter, and I was about the richest man in the family.”

That quarter could buy him a cold Coca-Cola, but first he would have to hike five miles to the country store to buy it. He lived with his parents, four brothers and two sisters deep in the woods in the middle of nowhere.

John Harris and his garden

Harris became interested in gardening when he worked the soil at the base of his dad’s small garden plot. Years later, he would turn that interest into a long and promising career after high school and leaving home for N.C. State. With $300 in his pocket, borrowed from his uncle, he went to the dean’s office to ask whether that was enough to enroll in the college. And it was.

It was at N.C. State that he learned the real value of agriculture and horticulture. It was in 1932 that Harris began helping people with their yard work, charging 10 cents an hour. Then he figured, “If I knew more about plants, I could charge more so soon I went up from 10 to 25 cents an hour. That’s not as small as it sounds because I could go to the café across the street and get a lunch – a meat, two vegetables, a drink and dessert – all for a quarter.”

In 1969, he retired from N.C. State and started his own landscape architecture business. Even after retirement and moving to Springmoor, Harris continued his gardening ways. He and his lovely new bride kept roses in bloom, using them to decorate the Springmoor community.

Harris recently moved from a villa with a yard into an apartment so he is doing more educating than gardening nowadays, but he continues to share fun and laughter as he shares moments from his extraordinary life with Springmoor residents.

My mother has 300 camellias, partially due to Harris spreading the gospel of nature throughout the Old North State and beyond. Take John’s advice and set the bar high for yourself at nine and at 99. And remember Springmoor’s Tar Heel Gardener as you exceed your own expectations.