A worthy First Citizen

Published 10:10 pm Saturday, April 12, 2014

Suffolk’s two Rotary clubs will join on Thursday to recognize a man whose positive impact on people around the city stretches back for decades. Robert W. “Bobby” Harrell Jr. will be honored as the 2014 Suffolk First Citizen, and the clubs will hold a special reception and ceremony to mark the occasion.

This will be the 55th time a First Citizen has been named in Suffolk. The award was originally given annually by the Suffolk Cosmopolitan Club until that organization disbanded in 1998. The Suffolk Rotary Club took up the idea in 2003, and that downtown organization invited the North Suffolk Rotary Club to join in the annual recognition a few years ago.

Harrell is a great choice for the clubs, as his influence has been felt all over the city. His work with community colleges, in particular, has made him an important if unknown friend to people all around the city (and Virginia, for that matter) who have sought to improve their education on a budget.


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Harrell has served on more boards and commissions than most folks ever could name, and those bodies have been influential in some pretty important endeavors. His advocacy on behalf of Virginia in the technological fields has helped the state become known as a home for modeling and simulation industries, has encouraged area leaders to pursue technology companies and has helped push the importance of science, technical, engineering and math courses in secondary and post-secondary education.

Harrell has worked directly in the community to help found two Ruritan clubs and the Suffolk Racquet Club, and he has coached youth league softball and basketball. He has been politically active on behalf of the local and state wings of the Democratic Party and served on the transition team of Gov. Gerald Baliles in 1985. His hard work has resulted in the election of Democrats at both the local and state levels.

But Harrell’s most important and direct contribution to Suffolk could be his fundraising and vision for the new Physical Education and Health Building opened last year by the Salvation Army. Harrell raised nearly every dollar that went into building and equipping the facility, and since it opened, he has turned his efforts toward making sure the Salvation Army has excellent equipment and programs to offer the community there. “Several generations will get the chance to benefit from it,” he said this week.

Though many may never have met him, folks in Suffolk owe a great debt of gratitude to Bobby Harrell, and it’s appropriate that he will be honored as Suffolk First Citizen.

Thursday’s reception will be at 6 p.m. at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts. Reservations are still available at $35 each, and proceeds go toward community and charitable projects. Register online at www.suffolkfirstcitizen.com.