A Private Man

MDCC English professor Wade Harris didn't share much about his life. But he might well have shared his murderer.

Local lore has it that the first white man to settle Marshal County, Alabama, was named Gunter. A Welshman, he married an Indian princess, prospered, and had a city named after him. Nestled in a crook of the Tennessee River, Guntersville is a town of 10,000 that seems much smaller. The nearest movie theater is in Albertsville, ten miles south. The races don't mix much, even since desegregation. Most blacks still occupy the area known as the Hill, an elevated plateau whose sagging porches afford an incongruously regal view of Guntersville Lake.

It was here that Wade Harris was born in 1938 and raised, along with nine siblings, by an unskilled laborer and his wife. Elihue Harris was a stern man. But he made sure his children went to school. Wade was never a problem in that regard. He was a star pupil. "There wasn't much time for playing," recalls Jane Alves, the wife of a wealthy white doctor who employed Harris as a baby sitter. "He went to school, worked until suppertime, did his lessons, then came back and worked at night." Harris entered the Navy after high school and then, with financial help from the Alveses, moved on to Atlanta's Morehouse College. Short on funds, he soon moved to Cleveland, where he worked at a hospital and stayed with his first cousin, Ruby Greene. In Cleveland he met and married Geraldine Williams.

The marriage dissolved a decade later, after Harris returned to Morehouse to complete an English degree. His interest in education led to a teaching job at a junior college in Atlanta, and in 1983 he joined the faculty at MDCC. He also began pursuing a doctorate in education at the University of Miami, where he chose as a specialty black idiom and the education of black students.

An avid fan of the Cleveland Browns football team, Harris traveled from Miami to Cleveland twice a year, always stopping in Guntersville to see family. "You could give Wade something sweet and a pot of coffee and he'd set with you all day," says Mattie Croom, his eldest sister. Harris also played master of ceremonies at school reunions, where he was revered as a local hero. "He left town without a car and I do believe I lived to see him drive a Cadillac," says Jane Alves, his old employer.

Harris was especially proud of the three-bedroom house he rented from colleague David Gosoff. He kept it immaculate and had an alarm system installed. The property embodied the security that should have accompanied his hard-won status. When he was found murdered in his home, the reaction from relatives, as on campus, approached disbelief.

"There weren't any of us who could understand why someone would do this," says Croom, who has seen five of nine siblings buried, not counting the twins who died as infants. "If they wanted money, or something to eat, Wade surely would have helped them out.

"When we got the body back here, we were worried we wouldn't be able to have an open casket," Croom adds. "The embalmer said he could do a plastic surgery, and by the time he was done Wade looked real nice from the way they said he looked when they found him. We did open the casket for the public for about an hour. Then we closed it up and didn't look no more."

To friends and relatives, Wade Harris stood as a model of black achievement, a poor, rural kid who lashed himself to the stanchion of education and climbed into the professional class. His alleged assailant offers the bleakest of contrasts.

According to court documents, Chris Harris was placed in state custody at age ten. His mother, who was raising him and four other children without the help of a spouse, claimed she could no longer control him. As a teenager he drifted between foster homes, the street, and youth hall, owing to regular arrests. He left school after tenth grade.

In December 1979, a month before his eighteenth birthday, Harris robbed a man of his car at gunpoint. He later admitted the crime to police and led them to the scene. "Based on his prior record, the extensive efforts to rehabilitate Chris in the juvenile system seem to be futile," a state caseworker wrote. Harris was transferred to the adult system.

"Overall the subject functions cognitively approximately between the ages of eleven and thirteen," observed Ronald Bergman, a psychologist appointed to evaluate Harris at the time. "He presents a capacity for more learning, but his educational experience and cultural deprivation prevent him from using his capacities." Bergman determined Harris to be "functioning at a borderline level of retardation" in verbal testing, with a third-grade reading level.

Harris was convicted and paroled after two years. He returned to a life of impulsive crime and became a familiar face to police.

"Chris Harris sometimes comes to me in my dreams," says John Murphy, a retired Miami Beach homicide detective. In November 1982, Murphy was called to an apartment in the Southgate Towers, at 900 West Ave. Phillip Siskind, 89, lay in the hallway, his walker on top of him, his bludgeoned skull cracked like an egg. Wife Hanna was in the bedroom. She apparently had put up a fight. "There was blood all over the place," Murphy recalls. "You could see from the spatter how [the weapon] was swinging back and forth."

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