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Profile of a Hero: Harry Kirkland, USMC


Harry Kirkland giving my son his first haircut.

This is supposed to be a farm blog, not an obituary column, but I have to write this one.

Harry Kirkland was my barber during both my tours at Sheppard.  He ran the “Hair Force” shop just outside the gate until he sold the shop and told me he was going on a cross-country motorcycle ride to enjoy a true retirement.  I missed our times together – walking in his door and asking “Harry, how are you?”  To which he’d always answer, “Pat, it’s a beautiful day to be alive.”

We hadn’t heard from him for a while, and when I tried to call him, his phone number had been disconnected.  I’d written him, but never received a reply.  A few weeks ago, we received our Christmas letter back marked “Deceased.”  I found his obituary here. He died just a few days before I left Sheppard.  It pains me that I didn’t know and missed his funeral.  The obituary is short – it’s probably as he’d want it, but I want to brag on him a bit more, because Harry lived a much fuller life than that obituary told.

Harry signed up for the Marines during the Korean war, before his 20th birthday.  He was a combat engineer but during our first few meetings he assured me he’d never been in “the heavy action.”  Over the next several years, I’d hear him talking with other older vets and trust me, he’d been in the thick of it: like the time when his position was overrun by North Korean and Chinese infantry, or his first night on the front when he spent most of it in a trench with mortar rounds landing beside him.  When I asked him, he’d say, “Well, Pat, that was scary.  But I had it a lot better than most.”  That was vintage Harry.  No matter what happened to him, he would say, “The Lord has blessed me more than I deserve.”

During the war, he started cutting folk’s hair “for something to do,” and he kept cutting hair after he got back from Korea and worked his way up on the Railroad, serving as a fireman, conductor, and freight engineer.  When the war started in Vietnam, he signed up again and served in combat as an NCO, not because he had to but “because, Pat, my country needed me.”

Harry returned from his second war and went back to work on the Railroad, and eventually retired from there and started up the shop “for something to do.”

Harry was married to one woman his whole life.  When she got sick and confined to a wheelchair, and then to bed, he cared for her.  He never complained, and never missed an opportunity to tell me how much he loved her and felt he didn’t deserve someone so special.  When she died was one of the few times I saw him visibly sad.  They’d been married for 35 years.  When I told him how much I was impressed by his devotion to her, he reminded me how blessed he considered himself to have been able to do it.

Harry and Jo raised four kids in Randlett, OK.  He loved them and made sure I knew how precious kids were.  One of their sons had been in an accident many years before and was  mentally handicapped.  Harry was so proud of him, and would brag about both his accomplishments and his heart.  “Pat, it’s not easy, but the Lord has blessed me more than I deserve.”

Harry kicked cancer’s butt.  Three times, including once from the lungs.  He’d had enough surgery and chemo to have plenty to complain about, but he never did.  And he said he felt pretty good – not like a teenager, but good enough to take up skydiving with the “Over 60” club.

Harry lived a full life.

Harry was not only my barber, but a true friend and a mentor.  I’d often stop by just to say hello, whether I needed a haircut or not.  When I had a tough problem or an ethical dilemma, I’d often run it past him.  Sometimes he’d help me find an answer, and sometimes he’d just listen.  Often, he’d take a deep breath and say, “You know, Pat, that reminds me of the time…”  Harry had a way of putting the problems of the day in perspective.  When I went to the Pentagon for a high-stakes interview for a special assignment, Harry  wished me luck, and said he’d pray for me.  He meant it.  He gave me a silver dollar to bring with me to remind me of that.  When I got the assignment, he was as proud of me as if I was one of his sons, and would never miss the opportunity to brag about me to other clients.  When we lost two pilots in a crash and I was exhausted from trying to console others, Harry was one of the ones who consoled me.

Some of my former students will remember that I kept a stack of Harry’s business cards on my desk.  Not because he gave an excellent haircut, but because he was a better counselor than most folks with PhDs and certificates.  When students were dealing with overwhelming stress and often in jeopardy of being washed out of training, instead of sending them to Dr Pittner, I’d often tell them to get a haircut.  Harry would talk them down, then give them one of his silver dollars.  There’s more than one pilot flying today that owes his wings to a barber.  He kept photos and newspaper clippings of many of them on a bulletin board behind the cash register in the shop.

I last saw Harry in 2010.  He had sold his shop and told me about his plans for the motorcycle trip.  His first stop was the Rocky Mountains.  “I’d really like to see them again.”  I had a feeling he was ill again, but he wouldn’t tell me.  On our last meeting, I asked him again how he was doing and he answered as always, “Pat, it’s a beautiful day to be alive.”  He died February 19th of the following year at the age of 76.  I hope I can live as full and honorable a life as he did.

Semper Fi, Harry.  Friends like you remind me that the Lord has blessed me more than I deserve, and it’s a beautiful day to be alive.

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