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Published: Saturday, 2/23/2013

Perrysburg Township retired doctor has book of poems

BY REBECCA CONKLIN KLEIBOEMER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Charles Henry Harrison, M.D., 85, of Perrysburg Township, has published a book called "Poems of Life." Charles Henry Harrison, M.D., 85, of Perrysburg Township, has published a book called "Poems of Life."
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Charles Henry Harrison is a sharp-dressed man.

The retired physician and author, who will be 86 in January, recently welcomed guests into his Perrysburg Township home wearing a suit and tie, complete with a pearl tack. Perhaps the habit was ingrained during his 22 years as a Toledo emergency room doctor, when his wife would custom tailor his clothes.

"I used to make his suits for him," said his wife, Mildred Harrison, who graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

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The couple, 51 years married, now can chuckle over memories of the abject racism they have encountered.

Mr. Harrison said he was tending the lawn at the home he owned in Ottawa Hills one day in the late 1970s when a landscaper driving through the neighborhood assumed he was doing hired yard work in the area, complimented his efforts, and offered him a job.

Another time he was in the yard when the delivery driver for the flowers he had ordered for his wife's birthday arrived.

"I told him, 'I'll take those,' and he said, 'Oh, no, you won't, these here are for Mrs. Harrison,'" he said, adding that his wife was confused to find them both standing at the door when the delivery driver rang the bell, still holding and protecting the flowers.

"We think all this is funny now. But at the time it wasn't funny. ... It's nice to see how things are different," Mrs. Harrison said.

Mr. Harrison spent a few years of his retirement writing poetry as he reflected on his experiences growing up in Woodville, a tiny Virginia community at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and becoming a successful man by self-determination.

More than 300 of those rhymes are collected in the self-published book Poems of Life, stanzas that Mr. Harrison said were based on true events and on the philosophy that has guided him through his education, military service, and medical career.

"You can make it if you try. Don't say you accomplished anything by dreams," he said.

In "Don't Wast Your Life Dreaming," the author advises: "Very few reach the top by dreaming all day. / You must put forth much effort in making your way. / Don't be afraid to shed sweat and tears. / Along the way you might have to overcome many fears."

Mr. Harrison said his parents were very poor and did not instill in him any ideas of becoming a doctor or other professional.

His father worked on a farm for meager wages to support his wife, who could not read or write, and their four children. They did not even permit him to go to school until he was 8 years old because the 3 miles to school was too far for him to walk, and there were no books in their home except for the Bible and a veterinarian manual.

He went to a boarding school in Manassas, Va., to which 30 buses brought other black students from up to 35 miles away to attend day classes. There he was influenced by the principal and his wife, who encouraged him to stretch beyond his background.

"They said I could make it," said Mr. Harrison, who graduated as valedictorian.

They also said he could go to college, and secured a scholarship for him to attend their alma mater of Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio, but Mr. Harrison had his intentions set first on joining the U.S. Army. He said he even requested the draft board to bump up his name on the list.

When he was drafted in 1945, he went to Fort McClellan in Anniston, Ala., which was "a horrible place for blacks," he said.

Mr. Harrison was stationed in Austria and Germany for a little more than a year, heading to Washington, D.C., when the army discharged draftees. He became a cook at a "hot shop" restaurant operated by J. Willard Marriott, who later would found the namesake hotel empire. But first he would put on a coat and grill food with his employees.

Mr. Harrison went to Hampton Institute, now a university, on the G.I. Bill and majored in chemistry with minors in math and biology. He again graduated second in his class.

He earned distinction through the ROTC program at Hampton and was commissioned in the Army as a second lieutenant.

In the summer of 1951, he was the only black man in his officer training class at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. On the way back from another camp, the officer class was traveling through the city at lunch time and stopped at a restaurant where Mr. Harrison knew he would not be admitted. When the captain, who was white, learned that he had stayed back in the army truck, he ordered the class out of the restaurant. He even refused to let them all eat at the desegregated officer's club once back at the fort.

"They had to sacrifice their meal because of me. But it didn't make me happy because I was hungry," Mr. Harrison laughed.

After serving as an artillery officer in Korea during the end of the war, Mr. Harrison went through other training programs at Fort Bliss and Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla., and then to medical school at Howard University in D.C.

He had a private practice in Portsmouth, Va., where he was prevented from joining any hospital or medical societies because he was black. He and his wife, who is a Columbus, Ohio, native, ended up in Toledo, where he started part-time at the former State Hospital.

For 11 years, he would work from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the mental hospital and then 3:30 to 8 p.m. at his practice on Auburn Avenue. In 1977 he left State Hospital, keeping office hours from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., going home for a meal and essentially a nap, then off to the former Mercy Hospital to attend to E.R. patients from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., a schedule he kept until 1988 when he only worked nights at Mercy.

When he wrote his poems, his wife bought him a computer so that he could turn them into a book.

"I told him, 'This is so good. You shouldn't just let this sit on a shelf,'" Mrs. Harrison said.

Poems of Life is available for sale at Barnes and Noble stores and through Amazon.com and iUniverse.com.

Contact Rebecca Conklin Kleiboemer at 419-356-8786, rconklin@theblade.com, or on Twitter @RebeccaConklinK.



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