Judge David E. Harrison was a star athlete at Gloucester High School and at Tufts University, but following his death Dec. 1 at age 86, he is being remembered in the city as a different kind of champion — a champion for anyone in need and anything Gloucester.
"He leaves a lifelong legacy of caring for this community in so many different ways," state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, said of the former head of the state's Democratic Party.
After a career in politics that included serving as a state representative from Gloucester and in various Democratic Party roles, Harrison became a Beacon Hill lobbyist. He was the highest-paid lobbyist in the state, according to an Associated Press story at the time, prior to being tapped to run New England operations for the presidential campaign of Sen. George McGovern in 1972.
His compensation for representing companies in real estate, banking and insurance, during the year before he traded lobbying for the McGovern campaign, was the equivalent of more than $300,000 in today's dollars. The wire service quoted Harrison as saying his work as a lawyer and lobbyist "certainly doesn't conflict with my political feelings."
On the bench
In 1988, Harrison was appointed to a district court judgeship. He served in Lowell before moving to Gloucester several years later.
By many accounts, Harrison made an extraordinary impact from the bench — nearly always in favor of children in jams and adults down on their luck.
"The magnitude of the compassion he showed children can't even be measured," said Melissa Teixeira Prince, who manages the Gloucester District Court clerk's office and was hired by Harrison 26 years ago. On more than one occasion, she said, he would tell children who had been brought to the juvenile session for failure to attend school that he would show up at their homes the next morning to drive them to school himself.
"And he was there at 8 a.m. and he drove them to school," she said.
"He would give second chances if not third chances if people came before him who were not as fortunate as others," Teixeira Prince added. But he was no pushover, she added. "He was a tall man with a big smile. He reeked of authority. But he didn't think he was better than anybody else."
Gloucester resident Isaac Pike saw Harrison from the wrong side of the bench and in an interview Thursday referred to him as "a great man."
After dreaming most of his life of serving in the Army, Pike said, "I was actively working with recruiters at age 19 when I made some serious mistakes and ended up in Gloucester District Court." Another judge heard Pike's case on a day when recruiters were present to vouch for his potential in the military, but nevertheless the judge refused to let the defendant leave the state for basic training.
Harrison, who had been working with Pike, heard of the development and intervened, said Pike. "He called me in and ended my case, which let me join the Army." Pike went on to become a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne Division and in 2015 was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Valor device for heroism in battle in Iraq.
"Judge Harrison didn't let mistakes define you or eliminate future opportunities," Pike said.
Caring about people
Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken knew Harrison for a long time, she said, and during her years helping patients' coordinate care at Addison Gilbert Hospital, she often would be paged on weekends because a defendant was taking the judge up on an offer to seek treatment rather than suffer court sanctions. She said she sometimes would grouse about working weekends to accommodate his defendants and that he'd point out in response that he, too, was working.
"He went that little extra to give someone a chance," Romeo Theken said. "He'd say, 'I'm giving you a chance. Remember that and instead of getting into a fight with someone someday, give (that person) another chance.'"
Tarr is a law-and-order Republican but spoke admiringly of Harrison's approach to criminal justice.
"He was somebody who didn't make judicial decisions — he cared about the people who came before him," Tarr said, adding: "He wanted people to find the right path so they wouldn't recidivate."
Harrison resigned from the bench in 2006 amid a flap that stemmed from interactions he had with local author and historian Joseph Garland.
Three years later, Harrison walked into Adult Foster Care of the North Shore and said, "There must be something that he could do for our families that would be helpful," recalled Dr. Cynthia Bjorlie, an internist who is the organization's executive director.
The former judge became a part-time case-worker, she said. "He probably gave most of the pay away." In some cases, families to which he was assigned already knew him "and they couldn't believe their luck," she said.
Harrison also was active in Gloucester athletics for many years and served as a referee for lacrosse and football games.