What do you do after you graduate from Harvard, marry into a glamorous family, win a Pulitzer, help transform the New York Times Company into a billion-dollar media giant and get close and personal with media icons like Art Sulzberger, Katherine Graham and Bill Paley? Retire to Sarasota and become a volunteer, of course.
Jack Harrison, the former president of the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group and vice president of the New York Times Company, has led an extraordinary life. Harrison began life in an orphanage, worked as a ditch digger and then married into one of the most prominent media families in the country. He was a liberal publisher whose crusading columns to improve black housing in the ’60s won him a Pulitzer; and yet, he became a bottom-line-oriented business leader in the newspaper industry. A soft-spoken, humble man with a gentle manner and a love of books, he ran a company of 4,000 people.
Harrison, 69, spent part of his first year of life in an orphanage. Eventually he was raised by his mother and stepfather-a car dealer-in Des Moines, Iowa. Money was tight, but Harrison’s mother (a member of the pushy moms club if there ever was one) knew Gardner Cowles, the owner of Look magazine and such Midwestern newspapers as the Des Moines Register, Minneapolis Star and Tribune, and decided to ask his advice. "I want my son to go to Harvard," she told Cowles. "He ought to go to [Phillips] Exeter then," Cowles replied. So, at the age of 13, Harrison, always a good student, was sent to one of the country’s most elite prep schools. Harvard was almost a given for Exeter grads back then. "Out of my class, 91 applied and 89 got in," he says.
An English literature major, Harrison loved Harvard. And Gardner Cowles remained a huge influence in his life. Harrison began to date Cowles’ daughter Lois when she was a freshman at Wellesley College, and he married her in 1955. The Cowles’ world was a far cry from Des Moines, where Harrison would still go home every summer to work as a ditch digger. The Cowles, who had a home in Manhattan, hosted grand parties with celebrities such as Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers. "I was marrying over my head," says Harrison. Fortunately, Cowles found much to like in his son-in-law.
Upon Harrison’s graduation in 1955, when he was considering a career in the foreign service, Cowles started talking to him about the newspaper business. He thought there was a great future in small papers, especially in the South. Cowles gave the young Harrison some prophetic advice. "America will follow the sun," he told Harrison about the demographic shift to the Sunbelt. "If I were you, I’d think about it."
For the next 15 years, Harrison learned the publishing business-first in Florida at the Fort Pierce News Tribune, where Harrison apprenticed in every department for $40 a week, and then back in New York in the accounting department for Look. The English literature major initially loathed the idea of number-crunching, but the business experience he gained at Look changed the course of his career. When he moved back to Fort Pierce a few years later, he ran the newspaper, which Cowles now owned. "I made every mistake in the book," Harrison says. "But Florida was soaring and you could make all kinds of mistakes and revenue would still be pouring in."
Harrison bought three more papers for Cowles-the Gainesville Sun, the Lakeland Ledger and the Ocala Star Banner. He became the publisher of the Gainesville Sun from 1962 to 1966, where he won a Pulitzer for his columns on the horrible living conditions of Gainesville’s African-Americans.
"This was in the mid-’60s in north central Florida," he says. "It made everybody furious with me. I was young, 32 or 33. I was a Yankee, a newcomer, and I’d gone to Harvard." The morning after he won the Pulitzer, he walked into a diner for coffee and a biscuit. The waitress looked at him and asked, "Did anyone ever tell you you look like that guy who won the Pulitzer?" "Yeah," Harrison answered. "Betcha that makes you mad, don’t it?" she asked.
In 1970, Cowles sold Look and some of his other publications to the New York Times Company. He told Harrison to come and work for him in New York. But Harrison had another idea. He wanted to keep buying small newspapers-this time for The New York Times. "I looked at Punch Sulzberger’s [Art Sulzberger, the owner of the newspaper] earnings," Harrison says. "He needed a balance. A stream of earnings other than The New York Times." Harrison’s pitch was that Sulzberger needed to buy smaller papers in regional markets, mainly in the South, where he believed all the growth would continue. That way, if the economy turned sour or the union went on strike-which it often did-Sulzberger would have other revenues. Apparently Sulzberger liked Harrison’s pitch. "I’ll give you some capital to buy some," he told Harrison.
Harrison eventually bought 33 newspapers for Sulzberger-most of them in Florida- and ran a division of 4,000 people. He made the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group an important source of the company’s profits in the ’70s and ’80s. Harrison targeted newspapers in high-growth areas without significant competition from another newspaper.
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune was one of those papers. It wasn’t an easy purchase. The owners had resisted for years, and when in 1982, they finally decided they were ready, Harrison had to convince New York Times executives immediately. Harrison decided to fly Walter Mattson, the president and CEO of the New York Times Company (who now lives part-time on Longboat Key), over Sarasota’s brand-new highways and housing developments. "You could see nothing but growth," Harrison remembers. "And roads and houses bring in readers, and readers bring in retail." Mattson-who knew nothing about Sarasota-told Harrison. "Man, we gotta buy this."
Sulzberger rewarded Harrison with a seat on the board of the International Herald-Tribune, a newspaper based in Paris and owned by the parent companies of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Whitney Communications. For 17 years, Harrison met with other board members, including Sulzberger, the Washington Post’s Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee, and CBS’s Bill Paley.
Harrison retired in 1993. Divorced by this time, his children out of the house, he lived alone in Atlanta, and dove into volunteer work. He sat on the board of Harvard. He started his own foundation to give college scholarships to underprivileged youth. For years, he rose before dawn almost every day to feed and encourage paralyzed patients at the Shepherd Spinal Clinic. If anyone asked him about his past, he would say he was a paper boy. Shortly after becoming a board member of Westminster Schools in Atlanta, one of the finest prep schools in the South, Harrison discovered that Westminster had never hired a Jewish faculty member. For two years, he and another board member fought to change the policy. Only when Harrison went to the national media and convinced the deans of admissions from 17 prominent universities to write letters in protest did the board reverse its policy.
In 1999, when Harrison was visiting his son Mark in Englewood, he met Bonnie Anderson, a Sarasota-based consultant who developed women’s healthcare programs and facilities around the country. They met at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. "I was waiting alone and in came this good-looking woman," he says. "She sat down two seats away. I’m not good at making small talk so I asked, ‘How do you like that paper?’" Bonnie was reading the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. "Good thing I said I loved it," she jokes today. For six months the pair corresponded (400 pages worth), with Bonnie constantly reminding Harrison that she was happy with her life and had no intentions of getting involved. They had their first date-at TGI Friday’s at the Atlanta airport where Bonnie had a long layover-six months after meeting. Nine months later, they were married. "I fell in love with the persistent paper boy," she says.
It didn’t take much to persuade Jack to throw away his Hickey Freeman suits and hundreds of ties and move to Sarasota. "I realized how much I really loved this place," he says. "How many interesting people with diverse backgrounds are here. By the time people get here, their social aspirations have been largely tempered. They are people who are satisfied with themselves. That’s not true in Atlanta or New York City."
In addition to sharing an interest in Sarasota’s arts offerings, the two volunteer for a number of local causes. They participate in the Sarasota County School District’s Take Stock in Children, a program that pairs bright, aspiring kids from underprivileged families with mentors. For the last year and a half, they have been meeting once a week with a senior at Sarasota High School who is headed into medicine. Harrison is also on the local board of Communities in Schools, a board he was active on in Atlanta, which is also about helping kids succeed in school. After a recent battle with prostate cancer, he has also joined the board of the Wellness Community Southwest Florida.
Harrison says his life has been a combination of hard work and luck. "Think of the breaks I got," he stresses. He adds that generous mentors such as Sulzberger and Cowles taught him early on that a good measure of a person’s character is how he treats those who work for him. He says he hopes he made life better for "those I served as an editorial writer and for those who worked with me as a businessman." And then he adds, "And that I did it quietly."