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A life of passion, integrity

Bo Harrison is remembered for his unwavering fight to make things right.

By JAMAL THALJI
Published April 22, 2007


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photo
[Times photo: Julia Kumari Drapkin]
Bo Harrison's daughters Sandy Harrison, second from left, and Michelle Harrison, center, and four of his grandchildren share happy memories while looking at old family pictures at Sandy Harrison's home in Zephyrhills last week.

DADE CITY - Bo Harrison's closest friends knew him as the beloved sheriff's deputy who lived to give opportunities to black youth. Now they choke on the bitter irony of his death: murdered, authorities say, by a 19-year-old black man. Retired Deputy Delia Carter expected more of the generation Harrison tried to help. "They had no idea what we went through so they can wear their damn pants under their butts," Carter said. "What he worked and lived for, to try and help them through, it got the best of him." This, however, is not a story of irony and death. All that will play out this week in a Dade City courtroom. Rather, it is about a man unbowed by racism who lived for family, football, peach cobbler - and just about everyone he met.

Charles Albert "BoBo" Harrison was born Feb. 15, 1946, to Willie and Lela Mae Harrison. He was the second oldest of three boys and four girls, born into a separate and unequal world of segregation.

His father nicknamed him "BoBo." Why he did so is a tale that has not survived to this day.

When Harrison was 23, an Army paratrooper just back from Vietnam when in May 1970, he met 17-year-old Lydia Bennett at a nightclub.

He asked her to dance, then to drive her home.

"We had a conversation," she said, "and we never stopped talking."

They married June 2, 1973. Charles and Lydia Harrison had three children: Sandy, now 34, Charles Jr., 31, and Michelle, 23. There are four grandchildren.

They divorced in 1991 but never really separated. They stayed close for the kids. And they stayed friends.

* * *

Lydia Harrison knew what she was getting into.

"Football was his second wife," she said, still jealous.

In school, "BoBo" always stood out.

"If I had to say Bo was like anybody else ... I would put him with (the late Chicago Bears football star) Walter Payton," said Willie Broner Jr., the best man at Bo's wedding, a teammate and friend who became Pasco High's longtime basketball coach. "Very shifty, but man, if he ever got out in the open, man, he was gone."

They played football, basketball and baseball for segregated Mickens High School.

The Wildcats won the state baseball title in 1963 and two Mid-8 conference titles in football after that. As a quarterback, Harrison threw 22 touchdown passes and ran for 18 that year. In 1964, the senior played running back and ran for 15 more.

It bothered Harrison that he never played football anywhere else.

"Bo was probably one of the best athletes to ever come out of Pasco County," said retired sheriff's Sgt. Tom Maston, an old friend. "Bo never had the opportunity to go to college and play professional football. He knew that was because of the era that he grew up in.

"He hated that he didn't get the opportunity, but he didn't hate anyone because he didn't get the opportunity."

* * *

James Irvin was one of east Pasco's most revered citizens, a prominent black businessman who mentored young blacks.

Pasco Sheriff Basil Gaines wanted to add black deputies to an all-white force. Irvin told Harrison he should apply. It was 1972 and Harrison was recuperating from a St. Petersburg car crash. He was done working for the phone company.

So Harrison started working as a guard at the Dade City jail.

"He was a go-getter," his former wife said. "He wouldn't allow anything to get in his way of elevating his life."

Five years later, Harrison was promoted to road patrol. He found his calling. In 1982, he became a corporal, three years later a sergeant.

In 1993, he was promoted to lieutenant and became the highest-ranking black in the history of the Sheriff's Office.

* * *

Here's what folks remember about Harrison:

He fished and hunted. He loved to eat and baked a mean peach cobbler.

He was a snappy dresser, loved to wear his Kangol berets, and not like the kids do.

"He wore it like a man should wear it," said Mickens classmate Hazel Wells, "with the brim coming out."

He sang with the St. John Missionary Baptist Church choir and was one of east Pasco's first black coaches.

Some people, former Sheriff Lee Cannon once said, thought Harrison walked on water.

"Even the common criminal liked Bo," Carter said.

But he could not tell a joke.

"He'd be laughing," Broner said, "and he'd forget the punch line."

* * *

Life on the street was no laughing matter.

"Many times I've walked in a room and heard other officers using racial terms about the black race of people," Harrison told the St. Petersburg Times in 1993. "There have been times that I almost went to blows with other officers."

With outsiders, it was worse.

"I was met with a lot of adversity because they weren't used to a black person telling them what they could and couldn't do," Harrison told the Tampa Tribune in 2001. "I was asked to leave homes a number of times, but I had to stand my ground."

In 1981, Harrison was one of five black residents who filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Dade City. Black neighborhoods were being neglected for white neighborhoods, they said.

After years of legal wrangling, the courts said they were right. The city paved the streets outside 100 homes in black neighborhoods.

"It's something I don't take pride in doing, having the court system force the city to do something it should have done a long time ago," Harrison told the Times in 1981. "We only asked them to do what was right."

* * *

That's what drove Harrison. That's what made him so beloved and respected. That's why blacks and whites alike were devastated when he was killed.

Segregation was crumbling, the racial divide was closing, and Harrison rose to help everyone bridge the gap.

And when the gap didn't close, he was one of the few links between those sworn to protect and those who distrusted their protectors.

That's how he lived his life, how he spent his 31 years in uniform.

"He wanted everybody to get along," Maston said of his old commander. "He wanted everyone to treat everyone equally."

But for his own people, he wanted something more.

"Bo wanted to bring respect to the black community," Maston said. "That's the way he lived his life."

* * *

Retirement wasn't Harrison's idea. But it was mandatory, and he planned to come back as a part-time bailiff anyway.

His retirement party was just days away when he parked his cruiser across from the Trilacoochee nightclub Rumors.

Bo never was one to sit behind a desk.

It was June 1, 2003, the night two bullets pierced his back as he sat in his patrol car, on stakeout, doing what he loved.

His family raced to the Dade City hospital. Hundreds had already gathered outside. Inside, Pasco Sheriff Bob White took Charles Harrison Jr. aside.

The sheriff had been crying.

"Your dad was shot in the back," the sheriff told him, "and I'm sorry to tell you that he didn't make it."

Charles "Bo" Harrison was 57.

More than 5,000 came to his funeral.

"I knew Daddy knew a lot of people," said daughter Sandy Harrison, "but when I walked into that gym that day, it was too much.

"It was like I couldn't breathe."

She passed out in her mother's arms.

* * *

Two days after Harrison was shot, authorities say 19-year-old Alfredie Steele Jr. confessed to pulling the trigger.

It was a family Harrison knew well.

Steele's stepfather drowned in Lake Jessamine in 1999. Harrison stood by Steele's mother, Regina Clemmons, for six hours while she waited for her husband's body to be pulled out of the water.

"I didn't mean to kill Mr. BoBo," Steele cried as a video camera rolled. "I'm sorry, Mr. BoBo."

"That's why Alfredie is saying he's so sorry," Lydia Harrison said, "because he knew what Bo stood for."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at (727) 869-6236 or thalji@sptimes.com.

[Last modified April 21, 2007, 19:18:56]


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