Giving Bobby his roses

Published 9:33 pm Thursday, April 23, 2015

It’s been said that people should be given roses while they can still smell them.

How fortunate, then, that Suffolk’s Bobby Harrell was the 2014 First Citizen honoree.

Exactly a year after receiving that award, he died last week at the age of 76. He had received a number of awards throughout the years, but none had honored his long history of service to his community like the First Citizen award.

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I knew Bobby slightly before the Salvation Army started its campaign to build a new physical health and education building on its Bank Street land. But I got to know him much better through my coverage of that long process.

Many, including Bobby himself, have called that project his most enduring legacy in Suffolk. It’s named for him, after all, thanks to the millions of dollars he solicited from individuals, foundations and businesses for the project.

When I interviewed him for the First Citizen award, Bobby — ever humble — made it sound like he’d raised the money simply by calling up favors from people who owed him. But it must have been more complicated than that.

Many of those people he knew through his family business; through his work in the community college system; through his connections to the College of William and Mary, one of his alma maters; through the Governor’s Industrial Development Advisory Board; and many, many other statewide projects.

Here in the community, he also was a founder and charter member of the Suffolk Ruritan Club and served as board member, member or adviser for things like 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.

Translation? He knew an awful lot of well connected people and probably indeed was owed a lot of favors. But I doubt that was the reason he was so successful raising money for the new center. I suspect the real reason is that folks wanted to give to a good cause, and they knew it must be worthwhile if Bobby was pitching it.

I got to know him a lot better when I interviewed him on his being named First Citizen. He welcomed me at his home, we sat in the den, and we chatted for several hours. I filled my notebook with jokes, tidbits about his wide variety of experiences and quotable quotes. Most of the time I wasn’t writing, only listening and learning. Very little of it wound up in my story, which could have been 20 times as long and still would not have fully conveyed the range of Bobby’s personality and accomplishments.

But through that interview, I learned Bobby had a great sense of humor and a deep passion for helping his community, and most of all loved his wife, children and grandchildren more than anything in the world.

I’m very happy Bobby made the list of First Citizen honorees while there was still time to do so. None of us knows what tomorrow will bring, so those you love, honor and respect for whatever reason: Tell them today.