Harris H. Palmer Jr. ’62

An icon is gone, but his legacy endures!

Speech by Alex Vollmer, President of the class of 1962

Very few days go by that I don’t think, at least briefly, of Harris and the times we shared here at Cornell and the connection we had for all the years thereafter, often from far away. Sometimes, those thoughts make me sad, however, of late, my thoughts about Harris and my connection with him have evolved.

It is in this sense that I’d like to share with you some thoughts, not so much about the memories that I have of Harris and our comradeship, but rather what I have been able to take from his legacy and what you might take and gain from those whom you remember here today.

Of course, I remember the smaller and amusing things about Harris – his never ending smile, his love of classic British sports cars, his insistence on playing Beatles music very loudly, very early Sunday mornings following a late night party at the house we shared on State St. here in Ithaca.

But, more importantly, I have begun to remember and focus on the more important characteristics that Harris evidenced – his legacy to me, if you will – of his uncompromising personal and professional integrity, his dogged determination to complete projects, his unquestioned fiscal responsibility, including performing as our Class Treasurer for quite a few years dealing with the arcane aspects of the Cornell accounting system, and his willingness to listen to anyone with a difficulty.

Each of you who are remembering and honoring someone here today can, I’m certain, list a number of qualities of that person that stick in your mind and which you can take and benefit from, as their legacy to you, as you move forward in your life.

If you do that, you will not only be honoring but remembering that person positively and, much as it has occurred with my thoughts about Harris, your sadnesses will be lessened and replaced with the legacy of positive attributes that that person is able to give to you.

Thank you very much.

For more than 25 years, Harris Palmer ’62, a True Gentleman and a stalwart of New York Alpha, has been on the front lines in saving and then building SAE at Cornell University into what it has become today. There is no better evidence of this than the New York Alpha Alumni Association winning the coveted first place as the Outstanding Chapter Alumni Association at the National Convention this past summer.

When Hillcrest ownership was taken over by Cornell, Harris was the first volunteer to step to the challenges that were ahead. We were faced with dwindling membership, financial issues, and weak alumni support. Together we assembled a team to communicate with alumni for the purpose of fund-raising to eliminate a huge debt generated during the prior decade or more. Fundraising among alumni had been unsuccessful to date. It was a slow start, but after just a couple of years the program was bearing fruit and generating $30-50k per year quite consistently. This money was being used to fund maintenance and repair of the tired 75-year-old Hillcrest, which had seen better days and larger membership. The situation was dire, to say the least.

Harris was the man on the scene dealing with and negotiating terms with Cornell to ensure that our active chapter would continue to occupy Hillcrest as its home while at Cornell in good standing.

For many years until 2001, Harris was one of just three alumni keeping the New York Alpha board responsibilities under control. He was a steady hand for the group, but most important he was our financial face or guru among the actives, the Cornell administration, and the alumni body.

His skill at tracking down the dollar is legendary. Harris was always in touch with our most generous donors, and he was unbelievable in finding money lost in the cracks of the Cornell Fund bureaucracy. He was equally persistent dividing up a dinner check at a function of friends so every person paid exactly his share and not a penny less. You always knew whom to pass the bill to when Harris was around.

It is fair to say that Harris was as generous to Cornell as a class officer as he was to New York Alpha, both in terms of his time spent and money contributed. Harris was as generous to SAE and Cornell as his time and personal fortune allowed. Serving SAE and Cornell was an honor, a rewarding experience, and fun for Harris as he said to us recently upon stepping down from the New Millennium Alumni Board on which he served.

A message about Harris Palmer would be incomplete without mention of his character. He was very social and known fondly as “High School Harris” during his undergrad years, when he excelled with beautiful dates, a classy Chevy convertible, and high honors on the scholastic front. He was also treasurer of the house, a leader, and very popular with all.

Harris was also very giving and caring, and several brothers and friends mentioned that upon his passing. He will be deeply missed both as a personal friend and a leader. He has left a great legacy of service for younger and future board members, and we can only hope they follow in his footsteps.

He was never the center of attention, but throughout his life Harris was the glue that held everything together. He brought out the best of all of us and was someone we all admired. Although not a contrarian, he would always raise the not-so-obvious but essential issues to consider in any dilemma. In the end, however, he was always a team player–and someone we all wanted on our team.

At the end, Harris encouraged the alumni board “to keep up the good work through the relentless recurring disappointments the beloved actives put you through.”

Yes, Harris, we will do that because of the example you showed and because “Brotherhood is for Life!” Thanks for all you did for the brotherhood, New York Alpha, Hillcrest, Cornell, and especially your many friends. Your legacy will be fulfilled with the 2015 Initiative you helped establish.

I am reminded as I write this of one of Harris’s favorite songs, which happens to be one of the Kinks’ greatest hits, “A Well Respected Man.” Every time I hear it, I will think of him. He touched so many of us who were friends, classmates, and fraternity brothers in ways that will be everlasting.

We will all miss him so–for all he added to our lives and work, for the friendships that endured to the end. I had just emailed him about what a wonderful run we had all had together. It has been grand.

And now I am sure he is at peace.

— Hal Sieling ’62

Harry received the True Gentleman Award in 2007.


I had the opportunity to attend the funeral service for Harris on Saturday at Westhampton Presbyterian Church. It was cold on Eastern Long Island, but bright and sunny, and the pretty church framed against the snow was like a Christmas card… Harris would have appreciated that. The church was filled by family and by his many friends, many from Westhampton Beach, his adopted new hometown.

At the service, his sister Mary Grace Terry and brother-in-law Cecil Terry remembered Harris as a brother and friend, and Alex Vollmer, Harris’ lifelong friend since their days at Cornell as grad school roommates, gave a wonderful tribute to Harris recounting his commitment and dedication to the cause he loved most–SAE and Cornell.

At the reception after the ceremony, they all spoke of Harris’ smile, his wit and dry sense of humor, and his caring and contribution to the many causes he cared about, and especially Cornell and SAE. I’m sure Harris is smiling down at all of us.

Phi Alpha, Harris…

— Dave Nisbet ’62