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Tuesday, November 12, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Anonymous donor gives $1.3 million for Central Area park in honor of doctor

Seattle Times staff reporter

Talk about a secret admirer.

An anonymous donor has given the Seattle Parks Foundation $1.3 million to build a Central Area park in honor of Dr. Homer Harris, a hall-of-fame football hero, renowned physician and a pioneer in the black community.

"This is all about Homer," said Karen Daubert, the foundation's executive director. "The gift — which is the largest ever made to any Seattle park, including the zoo and the aquarium — is from someone who has known and been inspired by him for years.

"If Homer wasn't Homer, it wouldn't have happened."

Harris, 86, said he was astonished when he heard the news.

"I have no idea who did it," he said from the living room of the Queen Anne house where he lives with his wife of 53 years. "I was surprised, but I do like it."

The creation of the Dr. Homer Harris Park will be announced officially in a ceremony at 10 a.m. tomorrow in the nearly vacant lot at East Howell Street and 24th Avenue where the park will be located.

This is the largest project yet for the Seattle Parks Foundation, a nonprofit fund-raising organization dedicated to the preservation and development of a world-class park system in Seattle. In its first year of operation, the foundation has built three elementary-school playgrounds and raised almost $2 million.

The half-acre park will be designed and developed with input from the community, said Kris Sorensen, the foundation's neighborhood parks project manager.

Harris, the only son of Homer Eugene Harris Sr. and Mattie Vineyard Harris, grew up playing football, baseball and soccer in the fields of the Washington Park Arboretum and swimming in Lake Washington.

A gifted athlete, he became the first black captain of Garfield High School's football team in 1933.

On a football scholarship he went to the University of Iowa — which he chose over the University of Washington because, as a black man, he would not have been allowed to live on the UW campus.

In Iowa, he was voted most valuable player in the Big Ten Conference. The following year he became the league's first black captain — and the first black captain of any sport in Iowa.

Three months ago, he was inducted into the Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame as much for the barriers he broke as for the game he played.

"This was a very significant moment: Homer really was a pioneer," said Les Steenlage, executive director of the National Iowa Varsity Club. "It says a lot about him that his mates chose him to be their leader."

But despite his talents on the playing fields, his mother had other ambitions for him.

"She had wanted to be a doctor herself, but her own mother told her it was impossible," Sorensen said. "So she determined that Homer would be one instead."

Charlie Russell, a lifelong friend of Harris, said, "She called him Doc, and she told him that if he didn't want to go to medical school that was fine, but then she was going to have to help some other boy do it.

"So, as you know, he did it and he was pretty darn good at it, too."

Harris went on to Meharry Medical College in Tennessee and then joined the Army. After World War II, he did a residency in dermatology and returned to Seattle, where he set up practice.

Sorensen, who is collecting stories about Harris for the park project, said Harris had one of the best-known and largest dermatology practices west of the Rockies. Though he said he's honored to have a park named for him, Harris said he's not sure he deserves it. He doesn't see himself as a hero, an icon or a pioneer but rather an ordinary man who has tried to do his best.

"I'm very imperfect, and I've struggled just like everybody else," he said.

But his wife, Dorothy Harris, said he was deeply moved.

"It was complete wonderment," she said. "It really meant something to him that someone would do this for him."

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com.

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