‘Great soldier promoted’

Published 10:53 pm Saturday, April 18, 2015

Robert W. Harrell Jr. receives the 2014 First Citizen award from Wendy Hosick, left, president of the Rotary Club of North Suffolk, and Bruce Bowles, right, president of the Suffolk Rotary Club.

Robert W. Harrell Jr. receives the 2014 First Citizen award from Wendy Hosick, left, president of the Rotary Club of North Suffolk, and Bruce Bowles, right, president of the Suffolk Rotary Club.

Last year’s First Citizen dies

Exactly a year after becoming Suffolk’s 2014 First Citizen honoree, Robert W. “Bobby” Harrell Jr. passed away Friday after several months of declining health.

Harrell was first a husband, father and grandfather. But to the community, he was many things: a businessman, author, fundraiser and board member for a number of different organizations.

“My father was a pillar of our family and his community,” daughter Cheri Anthony said on Saturday. “We are proud of his many attributes and accomplishments.”

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Daughter Robyn Soto said she “learned how to be a loving, caring, responsible parent and citizen from my dad. I am touched by his generosity to others, his wife, his grandchildren and me.”

Cheri said her father “loved his grandchildren fiercely.” His wife, Monette Harrell, agreed.

“My husband was a wonderful companion, friend and father who always put his family first,” she said. “He loved Suffolk and had a passion for making our community a better place.”

That passion came out most recently through the Salvation Army. He was so successful at fundraising for the organization’s new physical education and health building on Bank Street that it was named after him.

“That’s pretty incredible that he did that in the past six years of his life,” friend Jack Eure said of Harrell’s work on the building. Eure said it would probably be Harrell’s most enduring legacy in the community.

George Birdsong worked closely with Harrell on the Salvation Army building.

“He did a wonderful job as the fundraiser for that building,” Birdsong said. “It would not have come together so well had it not been for Bobby.”

But on April 17, 2014, Harrell deflected praise for the accomplishment at the First Citizen event, which is sponsored by the Suffolk and North Suffolk Rotary clubs.

“We’ve been able to do that through the structure and fiber that runs through this community,” Harrell said. “I don’t think any (other community) exceeds ours in the way everybody pulls together.”

Last spring, Harrell agreed with Eure that fundraising for the building was his greatest accomplishment.

“Several generations will get the chance to benefit from it,” he said. “The gratifying thing is to walk back in now and see it being used.”

Capt. James Shiels Jr. of the Salvation Army’s Suffolk Corps said Harrell was the Suffolk Salvation Army to many people.

“For more years than most of us care to count, Bobby has served the needs and cause of the Army,” Shiels said. “There was barely a week that you wouldn’t find Bobby at the Salvation Army. I would walk in and he’d be giving a tour of the new building, appropriately named for him, or hosting a local club meeting. Bobby was there at every turn, assisting in grant writing, visiting donors and even helping the volunteers straighten up and clean.”

Eure said Harrell was heavily involved not just in the Salvation Army but in many different activities.

“He did so many other things that most people don’t even know about,” Eure said.

After graduating from Whaleyville High School, Harrell went to the College of William and Mary and later got his Master of Business Administration degree from Old Dominion University. He did more graduate work at the College of William and Mary, where he later served in many different capacities: on the board of directors for the business and technology center, the development board for the School of Education, chairman of the William and Mary Chapter President’s Council and president of the South of the James Alumni Chapter.

After teaching business for seven years in the community college system, he was appointed to serve on the State Board of Community Colleges and the National Board of Association of Community Colleges Trustees.

Despite his many statewide affairs, he didn’t neglect his own community. He was a founder and charter member of the Suffolk Ruritan Club, and served as member, adviser or board member of the Elizabeth River Project, the Bank of America ODU Entrepreneurial Center, the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center, the Rural Virginia Initiative and the Children’s Museum of Virginia. He was chairman for the Suffolk Democratic Committee for 14 years and was involved in the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce.

In 1974, he won Suffolk’s Outstanding Young Man award given by the Jaycees. Eure said he considers that award a precursor to the First Citizen award, which did indeed come for Harrell 40 years later.

It wasn’t all business for Harrell, though. He could tell a good joke just as well as he could fundraise — and he could do both all day long.

“I’m going to miss him,” Eure said. “He’s just a fun guy to be around.”

Shiels said Harrell was the best friend he had in Suffolk, being a recent transplant to the area thanks to his job.

“Being from the Midwest, there are things that we have not experienced here in Virginia,” Shiels said of himself and his wife, Susan. “Bobby was there to share in many of what will become lifelong memories for me. My first oyster roast, my first Shrimp Feast and Peanut Festival and many more.”

Shiels compared Harrell’s passing with the rank and promotion system used in the Salvation Army.

“Bobby was clearly a great soldier of the Salvation Army, and I know that he has been promoted one final time,” Shiels said.

In addition to his wife, daughters and sons-in-law, Harrell is survived by four grandchildren, a brother, and several nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews.

A service is planned for 2 p.m. Monday at Main Street United Methodist Church, 202 N. Main St. The family will receive friends following the service.